Games That Pushed The Limits – Part 1
I have been recently been fascinated by the history of the various machines that have battled for our living rooms. Each machine has had its strengths and weaknesses, and as a programmer, I’m amazed by some of the ways developers have harnessed the power of consoles and pushed them to their limits resulting is some marvelous games.
I usually try to emphasize that gameplay is more important that graphical quality. However, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at games that were the most demanding when it came to a console’s limited system resources.
I’m by no means a 2600 expert, but Solaris is definately one game that comes up quite frequently in terms of innovative 2600 games. Considering the 2600 wasn’t originally intended to do much more than play Pong variants, Solaris is a technical masterpiece with its sophisticated gameplay and relatively high resolution graphics.
Although the game played much like a first-person space shooter, you can always see your ship at the bottom of the screen. The graphics for Solaris were first-rate as the multi-colored aliens are flicker-free and glide along smoothly, even when attacking in groups.
Full Review of Solaris
Super Mario Bros. 3
Nintendo stood behind its first two systems for a quite a while — even when the next generation of consoles had made their footprint in the market. Because of this, developers knew the NES inside and out and were able to develop some excellent games that kept up with the upcoming 16-bit titles.
Super Mario Brothers 3 led the way of pushing the seven-year-old NES technology to its limits by being worlds apart from its predecessors in terms of graphics and sound. Just about every gamer was blown away by how groundbreaking SMB3 was when it was debuted. Of course, the infamous movie, “The Wizard” gave us a preview of the beautiful, new sprites, backgrounds, and animation effects.
If you had never seen an NES before, you would think that Mario 3 was an early version of Super Mario World. The characters are alot bigger and many are more detailed than the original SMB games. In the “Giant World” levels, we get a serving of especially-large sprites — the goomba is twice the size Mario.
Full Review of Super Mario Bros. 3
With the third installment of the NES Castlevanias, Konami packed a very large game into that small cartridge with a couple of custom mappers, which gave the NES very nice graphic effects, such as rotation and parallax faking.
The graphics are revamped and are some of the best on the NES. A very large amount of animated tiles in the backgrounds of movement stages fill the game with a haunting atmosphere. Some action stages have some surprises that add to the challenge, such as automatic scrolling, rising water, crumbling bridges, and falling towers.
Konami made the most of the graphical capabilities of the NES to provide intricate details such as stained-glass windows, moss on rocks, eerie swamp fog, ominous shadows, rotting wood, and spectacular lightning flashes. This is a definite step up from Castlevania 2 which often repeated backgrounds. The enemies and bosses look much better than they did in the previous Castlevania games (which were good to start with). The animation is one thing that is much improved, as many of characters now have more than just one or two frames.
Full Review of Castlevania 3
Kirby was another one of those games that came out for the NES as gamers were already looking forward to SNES titles. It’s a cute and fun-filled game that, like Super Mario Bros 3, looked like an early SNES game with a smaller color pallete. Kirby had an advantage on Mario 3, however, as it was the largest licensed NES cart at 6 Mbit.
Rather than make some piece of trash as the last great NES game, the makers polished it and polished it until you can almost see your face in it. The graphics stretch the 8 bit format to its absolute limit. It is the aesthetic equivalent of painting the Lord’s Prayer on a grain of rice – the beauty is that of working within the limitations.
Kirby himself is a beautiful vibrant pink, the worlds he passes through are delicious lime greens, ice blues, chocolate browns – the rich colours do not attempt to emulate 16 bit, but instead try to make 8 bit as beautiful as possible. The attention to detail incredible as Kirby’s character animations are about as good as they get on the NES.
The backgrounds’ graphics may be The biggest strength of the game. In relation to most other NES games, the backgrounds in Kirby’s Adventure are superb. There’s one level that takes place in a forest and you can see an ocean in the distance. There is also some nifty parallax scrolling in the tower stages of the game. If all that wasn’t enough, the game has smooth animation as well. Even the intros to each level were nifty. All these little elements come together to create one “dreamy” gaming experience.
Full Review of Kirby’s Adventure
- Megaman 6 – One of the least favorite Megaman games, but the graphics are the best of the NES series with colorful backgrounds and foregrounds and impressive enemy design. . (Review)
- Dragon Warrior IV -Weighing in at an entire 1 megabyte of program ROM, this RPG improved on its predessors and pushed the bounds of what an NES cartridge could hold. Correction: I’m told that the real version of the game is only 512K. Still an impressive title, however. (Review)
- Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers – This Capcom platformer was en excellent of example of colorful sprites and great animation. A licenced game done right (Review).
Ghouls N Ghosts
Most gamers in the 80s (including myself) were pretty much clueless about Sega’s first home system. While it did not have the developer and retail support that the NES had, it had a number of games, especially arcade ports, that were graphically superior to the NES.
Outside of the slightly downgraded graphics and sound, the Sega Master System port of Ghouls N Ghosts played almost exactly like its bigger arcade brother, which would cause even a Nintendo fanboy to be impressed. Even though it is slightly slower, the presentation is so impressive that it’s hard to believe that this was made for the Master System. Of course, it never looks as good as the 16-bit console ports, but this really proved that the system could do amazing stuff with the right people behind the project.
Full Review of Ghouls N Ghosts
As one of the greatest exclusive SMS games, Phantasy Star was an RPG that topped any other RPG in the 8-bit generation. It was the first console RPG to be released in the United States since Nintendo had not seen fit to import either Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy for the NES at that time.
Phantasy Star was jam-packed into a full 4 Megabit cartridge and was superior to both games in terms of both graphics and sound. It delivered fully detailed on-screen displays and character graphics (as opposed to the tile-like graphics of Nintendo’s offerings) and made full use of the Master System’s PCM synthesis chip to deliver one of the best FM-based audio experiences ever heard in an “old-school” 8-bit RPG.
Full Review of Phantasy Star
- Sonic the Hedgehog Series — The SMS did not sport the Genesis’ so-called “Blast-Processing”, but did a good job keeping up with the blue blur.
- Gunstar Heroes – If anybody can push a system to the max, it’s Treasure — this rare Genesis down-port still shined.
If there is one thing that can get a PC-Engine fan excitied, it must be one of Hudson’s high quality shmups — most of which demonstrated effects simply unthinkable on an 8-bit machine.
Sapphire, in particular, featured a number of amazing raytracing, rotation, real-time scalling, morphing, and real-time 3D effects. Simply put, it had an avalanche of effects without a single slowdown. Giant sprites, a heavy-metal soundtrack and an outstanding playability make of Sapphire a near-perfect shmup.
Sapphire is a milestone on PC-Engine history. Its quality is comparable to some great Playstation shooters, like Raystorm. If not for the high price usually asked by sellers, Sapphire would be an obligatory acquisition for any PC-Engine collector.
Full Review of Sapphire
- Dracula X (aka: Castlevania X) -Some truly gruesome creatures punctuate this game, showing just what can be achieved in 2D with a limited color palette. (Review)
- Strider – Had an expert conversion to the PC Engine thanks to the Arcade CD format. With the extra memory the Arcade Card afforded the programmers, this game was true to its arcade parent in terms of graphics and gameplay.
Its nearly impossible to talk about the Genesis and technical mastery and not have Gunstar Heroes come up in the conversation. If there was one developer that knows how to push 2D consoles to their limits, it’s Treasure (the same group that brought you Contra on the NES). This run-n-gun classic has mobs of sprites that litter the screen at any one moment. The two player game features a moderate amount of slowdown, but it’s not enough to significantly detract from the game.
Every graphical element in Gunstar Heroes is impressive: from the rotating, pseudo-polygonal intro logo to the warping, scaling, and rotation effects throughout the actual game. And, much like Metal Slug, the bosses in Gunstar Heroes are made up of tons of sprites that move and jiggle independently. Not only did Gunstar Heroes’ graphical effect enhance the visual apprearance of the game, but it also help increase the variety of the gamplay.
No other game on the Genesis pushed the system as far as this technical marvel. In fact, nothing on the Super Nintendo scaled objects as well, or moved this fast or smoothly with the possible exception of a few Super FX chip games.
Full Review of Gunstar Heroes
This European shooter had incredible 3D effect backgrounds, making the MegaDrive hardware do things that the Nintendo fanboys claimed were impossible on the Sega machine.
The game plays much like Space Harrier and Burning Force. It looks much better than the Genesis versions of those two titles and its pseudo-3D line scrolling hasn’t aged all that badly.
Panorama Cotton is gorgeous to look at as it makes some of the best use of the Genesis’ color palette I’ve ever seen and the backgrounds are ripe with detail. The line scrolling effect is still impressive, even if the overall scaling may seem slightly choppy to a modern gamer’s eye.
Full Review of Panorama Cotton
Vectorman was, in a way, Sega’s answer to the Donkey Kong Country series and it’s pre-rendered, 3D-like graphics. Vectorman not only looked beaufitul, but also provided some animations that were even more impressive than DKC.
Vectorman’s developers, Blue Sky Software, made use of an impressive new program called “Vector Piece Software”, which allowed the spheres making up Vectorman’s body to be individually animated. That’s why he moves so smoothly, and how he can easily glide into and out of his various transformations.
According to Vectorman’s head developer, Richard Karpp, A large percentage of the levels implemented a creative use of the Genesis’ scrolling backgrounds – it was possible to specify a different scroll offset for each horizontal line, for example, which could give a parallax effect. It was used vertically in a few levels as well, even though vertical scrolling was limited to 8 pixel chunks. Some examples for of its uses were for waterfalls and the conveyor belts.
The bosses were all designed around this technique as well. The first boss that you encounter in the game, which looks like a fighter plane, is actually implemented in the second scrolling playfield, and they used scroll offsets to make it look like it was rotating.
One of the more subtle effects we used was the highlight/shadow mode of the Genesis, which allowed the artists to use more on-screen colors than games typically used. To round out the rest of the graphical effects, you can see dust motes above light fixtures, shimmering arctic waterfalls and some impressive lightning effects. This late Genesis title kept Sega fans interested as Sega prepped the Saturn.
Full Review of Vectorman
- Sonic and Knuckles – Not only did this last 2D console Sonic game have some beautiful backgrounds, animation, and a sweet 3D-ish title screen, but its also was the only game to have its special Lock-On cartridge format. It allowed you to attach the older Sonic carts into it and play Knuckles in those games. Very inventive.
- Contra: Hard Corps – This shooter had a healthy dose of eye candy sprinkled with scaling and rotation effects. Hard Corps also had some awesome backgrounds and level designs that rivals the SNES version of the series in every way. (Review)
- Virtua Racing – Even though this 3D racer used a built in chip, it was awe-inspiring to see running on the Genesis. And the game’s initial price tag was equally jaw-dropping. (Review)
- Castlevania Bloodlines – Bloodlines was able to do fake translucency, mirroring, parallax scrolling, cloud effects, transparency, and other graphical feats that pushed the system’s powers were done in this game. (Review)
Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves
Just about every late Neo-Geo game pushed the system to its limits. How else would SNK continue to such masterful games on hardware that is over a decade old? If I had to choose one game that defines how great of a 2D game SNK can push out of a Neo-Geo, Fatal Fury Mark of the Wolves would top the list.
Although most gamers can expect great visuals from SNK, Mark Of The Wolves features some of the best 2D animation in a fighting game. It has drawn comparisons with Capcom’s Street Fighter 3, and although it doesn’t have quite as many frames of animation as Third Strike, you’d be hard pressed to find many 2D fighters that move as fluidly as this one.
Additionally, the game rivals the likes of Marvel Vs Capcom 2 in terms of special effects; the gratuitous amount of hitting sparks, fiery projectile attacks, and flashy lightning visuals are generously displayed even with the simplest special attack (i.e. Butt’s rising uppercut). It’s simply astounding how smooth the idle animations are and you’ll begin to notice little details for each fighter.
Full Review of Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves
The Last Blade 2
Weighing in at a whopping 554 Megs, The Last Blade 2 has some of SNK’s most lush, detailed graphics ever. The backgrounds are stylized and match the mood of the game perfectly. The separately animated sprite fields add a wonderful sense of depth and movement and they augment the character graphics in a way that adds flair and imagery with out competing or detracting from the characters themselves. This combination creates an atmosphere that really contributes to thrilling, intricate gameplay (much like the first Last Blade did).
Every fighter is so finely detailed and animated that it will make you want to play more simply to admire the art. I guess my only gripe about the art (and this is very minor) is that the characters don’t have their own backgrounds anymore, whereas in the previous Last Blade each fighter had a personalized stage.
The pre-match cinemas are vintage SNK and there is plenty of eye candy effects with the specials and supers. The zoom effect was also appropriately used, keeping the frame rate smooth and constant, not to mention keeping the characters focused.
Full Review of Last Blade 2
- Samurai Shodown V – This was the last of the offical Neo-Geo games and like other late releases, it was impressive in terms of showing what an old platform could do. SSV nearly topped out the Neo-Geo’s cartridge store capacity at 708 Megs. (Review)
- King of Fighters 2003 – THE biggest Neo-Geo game ever at 716 Megs. 2003 was the last KOF game on the original Neo-Geo hardware and I still find it hard to believe it’s not a Atomiswave game. (Review)
- Sengoku 3 – Graphically, the game is a quantum leap over Sengoku 1 and 2. The characters are not only much larger but considerably more detailed with reasonably fluid animation. The special effects for certain attacks are also extremely well done. (Review)
- Metal Slug 3 – Despite a couple of minor blemishes here and there, Metal Slug 3 is one of the greatest ever 2D titles on any system, and definitely the most well-rounded game in this series. (Review)
- SNK vs Capcom Chaos – SvC really had some potential as it has some large sprites and great color, unfortunately, it seemed like SNK rushed this title as lacks the detailed characters and smooth animations that many of its other fighters have. And once you actually get into the game, you realize that it is pretty flawed. (Review)
Near the end of the SNES’s long journey, Nintendo released one more Mario World-esque game which resulted in the most graphically advanced SNES game — especially in terms of 2D. Yoshi’s Island uses the Super FX 2 microchip to create sprite scaling and polygon effects that are relatively advanced for a Super Famicom/SNES game.
Obviously, the power of the new hardware gave Nintendo the opportunity to display all sorts of great visual effects that had never been seen before. In fact, when compared with 32-bit games being released for Sony’s Playstation, Yoshi’s Island may have left some people scratching their heads, wondering what advantages a CD-based console had over 16-bit cartridges.
The entire game is filled with small details and little enhancements that really push it over the top. Yoshi’s Island features a unique graphical style that looks similar to a children’s book; it’s very colorful, with sketchy, handdrawn looking effects that popup and warp in real-time. Yoshi, Baby Mario, and all of Koopa’s minions animate beautifully. Some enemies move strictly by scaling and rotating around the screen, pushing the SNES to the max.
Full Review of Yoshi’s Island
The first (and one of the few) games to bear the Super FX Chip technology, Star Fox was a technical marvel as far as Super Nintendo games were concerned. The enclosed chip, which was powerful enough to push out flat-shaded polygons and render them reasonably quickly, was also expensive enough to limit its production to just a few titles.
The Super FX chip freed up the system resources inside the SNES and made for one very fast, great-looking, and great-playing 3D shooter. These and other such customized co-processor carts were very expensive to produce, and it was not long before Nintendo began other, cheaper avenues of assault on Sega.
Full Review of Star Fox
Donkey Kong Country (1, 2, and 3)
This popular series was without doubt one of the best-looking group of platformers to ever grace a 16-bit console. Rare’s development teams had found a way to convert 24-bit animation sequences into a format that a 16-bit console by creating on a high-end SGI workstation and then porting them to the SNES.
It was a technique that was also used in Rare’s Killer Instinct. Rare took significant financial risks in purchasing the expensive SGI equipment used to render the graphics. If the game had not been a commercial success, the company could have gone bankrupt.
Donkey Kong Country also is supposedly the first SNES game to use the scanline trick to push the max on screen colors from 256 to 4096. To summarize, Donkey Kong Country is a game that turned the the 16-bit era around and really got Sega’s attention.
Full review of Donkey Kong Country
- Star Ocean & Tales of Phantasia – Star Ocean netted a total of 48 Megabits of compressed data, completely maxing out the cartridge format. Tales of Phantasia was one only other game to come close. Both games were incredibly beautiful and featured voice acting — a rarity for cartridge-based games. (Check out the review of the new Tales of Phantasia GBA Port)
- Cybernator/Assault Suits Valken – This mech shooter is filled with destructive details and smooth animation. It’s so suprising that this is actually a SNES game, I would say it actually rivals it’s Saturn sequel, Assualt Suit Leynos 2.
- Axelay – This may be the definitive shooter for the SNES. The high resolution graphics are stunning, and there are so many types of enemies that you rarely see the same one twice. The centerpiece of this game however, are the bosses – they are huge and imposing.
- Street Fighter Alpha 2 – Did you even know that Alpha 2 runs on the SNES? Sure, its not the best version of the game, but its still impressive to see it running on the Super Nintendo.
- Stunt Race FX – The second game which used the FX chip, but this racing game wasn’t quite as impressive as Star Fox.
- Killer Instinct – As mentioned above, it used a graphic techinique similar to Donkey Kong Country and brought it to the 2D fighter genre.
Possibly the best Sega CD game and the best Sonic the Hedgehog game ever, Sonic CD took advantage of the Sega CD is just about every possible way. The blazing fast gameplay that was possible in the original Genesis Sonic games was already impressive enough. Instead of doing a quick port like some other Genesis-to-Sega CD games (Eternal Champions, Earthworm Jim), Sonic CD was a complete renovation of the Sonic games.
Sonic CD started with a great FMV video intro that was enough to make Sonic fans drool (even if the music was cheesy), but it didn’t end there. Sonic CD featured and incredible CD audio soundtrack, amazing sound effects (I still love Dr. Robotnik’s evil laugh to this day), improved 3D-like Bonus Rounds that took adavantage of the SCD’s extra processing capabilities, and 2 additional variations of each level (Past and Future) via the game’s time-travel feature. Why Sega never built off of Sonic CD’s features, I’ll never know.
Full Review of Sonic CD
One of my first and favorite Sega CD games was an amazing shooter that featured a heavy dose of pseudo-3D action and cutscenes. I still think Silpheed is impressive to this day.
Using polygonal objects with twice the level of detail of those from Star Fox, and taking up almost the entire screen at a high fps while doing it, Silpheed’s graphics are technically brilliant.
As your craft makes its way through hostile territory, the on-rails camera forces you left and right, offering panoramic views of incoming armadas, cramped Star Wars style trenches, and bumpy, obstacle-ridden surfaces.
The nicest parts are when it misses a huge object by about a centimeter, giving a real sense of physical immersion in spite of the obvious limitations of the time, such as background pop-up.
Full Review of Silpheed
- The Lunar Series – The Sega CDs inproved storage capacity allowed developers to bring epic RPGs to life in a way that was not possible before. Both Lunar games capitalized on these strengths by bringing FMV cutscenese, magical soundtracks, and massive amounts of gameplay to the Sega CD. (Review)
- All those FMV Games – While the gameplay sucked for the most part, the videos had to be optimized in order to get the most colors out of the Genny’s limited palete. Some of the FMV games received 32X upgrades that boosted the image quality. Between the Sega CD’s storage compacity and the 32X’s image upgrade, these titles maxed out the Genesis architecture.
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