Games That Pushed the Limits of the Sony Playstation (PS1)

See Other Entries of the Games That Pushed The Limits Series

As somebody that has a computer science background, I’m always fascinated by games that are the work of skilled developers that learned the intricacies of a console’s hardware to squeeze every last bit of performance from the machine or use some limited resources creatively to accomplish things you didn’t think was possible.  Even though it did have some limitations (especially in terms of memory), the Sony Playstation hardware was well-crafted and made it easy for developers to quickly learn how to maximize performance results compared to the Sega Saturn and Nintendo 64 (read our full technical comparison).

Not to downplay some of the stunning visuals that the likes of Square’s art direction and pre-rendered elements, but there is a LOT of competition on the PS1 for some truly impressive coding that really maxed out what the Playstation was capable of. Square will indeed get some mentions below, but you might be surprised by a few developers and games that somehow stayed under the mainstream radar.

One of my other goals in this piece is to try to present diversity – not only in the types of games, but also in the ways developers worked around the limitations of the PS1. There are so many great stories of developers trying new things and accomplishing impressive feats.  I hope you find them all fascinating as well!

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver

Release Date: August 16, 1999

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Key Technical Features:

  • Ambitious worlds with a great attention to detail
  • Incredible lighting effects
  • Character animation that was well ahead of its time
  • Data-streaming techniques to produce seamless worlds without load times
  • “Dimensional Shifting” gameplay element that utilizes quick switching between two alternate game environments
  • Runs are 512×240 – target 30pfs with some occasional slowdown.

Being released in August of 1999 (after two and a half years of development) Soul Reaver was up against the upcoming US release of the Sega Dreamcast and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time had redefined gamer’s expectations of action adventure titles. However, Crystal Dynamics’ labor of love ended up being possibly the biggest technical achievement of the Playstation’s library while sharing an ambitious interactive storytelling experience.

While the development drama of Soul Reaver is fascinating, we will focus on the technical achievements that came to fruition from all the long nights and drama.  Soul Reaver ran on Crystal Dynamics’ proprietary Gex engine (which was originally used on Gex and built on top of what they learned while working on Tomb Raider) along with some code for character animation that they developed for 3D Baseball (which was ahead of its time in terms of motion capture, but lacked the benefits of an MLB license). The Gex engine chunked large levels into sections and then streamed the level data as needed to the system memory. It kept the player’s current section and the two adjacent sections in memory to keep loading to an absolute minimum.  (In addition to the two Gex titles and Soul Reaver, the Gex engine was use used on Akuji).

Soul Reaver’s Game Director, Amy Hennig admitted that the data streaming was their biggest challenge during development:

“It proved to be way more difficult than we had initially anticipated – if I recall, we were still struggling to get the textures to dynamically pack correctly, just a couple months before release. We ultimately got it working by the skin of our teeth, but I wonder if we would’ve embarked on such an ambitious plan if we’d known how difficult it was going to be!”

Since the CD-ROM gave developers more storage than they needed for the game, multiple copies of textures were loaded on different parts of the CD-ROM so that they were slightly quicker to access depending on where the disc was already reading.  This avoidance of loading time overcame one of the most common drawbacks of the 2X CD-ROM based PS1/Saturn compared to the cartridge-based N64. Some other PS1 titles pulled off a similar strategy, but Soul Reaver was one of the first and most impressive in its execution.

To complicate the technical challenges further, the game features dimensional shifting, letting players jump between the material and spectral planes of the game at will. This gameplay element is critical to the game’s story-telling and plays in heavily for puzzle-solving elements. The developers essentially had to keep two variations of the game environment loaded at all times. Between most of the two variations the basic map data is the same, but there is an adjustment of the underlying geometry and color data.

Amy Hennig also shared that dealing with the shift in realms was the team’s second largest challenge:

“Our initial plan was over-ambitious, involving texture-morphing as well as geometry-morphing, but we realised pretty early on that our texture memory (and time) was too limited to achieve this.

We came up with the idea of leveraging the 3DS Max animation timeline to attach spectral values to the vertices in the geometry – i.e., frame 0 was the material world, and frame 1 was the spectral realm (or vice versa; I can’t remember for sure). This way we could alter the x,y,z coordinates of each vertex, as well as its RGB lighting values, to create a twisted, more eerily lit version of the physical realm.”

Soul Reaver’s soundtrack often gets a lot of acclaim. Even though it could have been simple to include pre-recorded CD audio on a PlayStation game, Soul Reaver actually uses a high-quality sequenced audio (similar to the SNES) that could dynamically altered and shifted based on what is happening on the screen. The Crystal Dynamics team was able to create a soundtrack of phenomenal quality while taking up very little storage space on the disc.  DF Retro’s 36 minute Soul Reaver video digs into some of these.

On top of all this, Soul Reaver runs at a resolution of 512×240 while targeting 30 fps. While it does have some occasional slowdown dipping into the 20 fps zone during larger areas and battling larger quantities of enemies, this is still impressive considering something like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on the N64 only ran at 320×240 at about 20 fps during the same time period.

Soul Reaver contains some of most impressive character animations and lighting effects to be found in the 32-bit era. Whether he is roaming the sprawling worlds, moving blocks in this 3D puzzle adventure, hovering, or swimming, Raziel always appears to move naturally and fluidly. The levels, object types lists, color lookup tables, and variations of textures were used to efficiently display a hauntingly dynamic environment.
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Metal Gear Solid

Release Date: September 3, 1998

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Key Technical Features:

  • Cinematic game engine creates an engaging but seamless experience
  • Creative use of textures and level design to drop jaws on limited 3D hardware
  • Optimizing crucial parts of code and turning them into assembly language.
  • Digging into random PlayStation hardware calls to create some innovative, mind-bending gameplay elements.

Metal Gear Solid is an iconic choice for utilizing the same mind-boggling game engine for its real-time cinemas, which creates a seamless transition from a game sequence to a cut-scene. Game director Hideo Kojima had also implemented a blurring effect to give Metal Gear Solid a movie-like feel.

With many of the innovative art direction and storytelling choices made in Metal Gear Solid, it is easy to overlook many of the technical optimizations accomplished by Konami’s team to create a game that would not only make the most of the Playstation’s hardware but would be an entity that would age relatively well at such an evolutionary stage for console gaming and is one of the most defining games on the PS1.

Nearly every object in Metal Gear Solid (including Snake) is polygonal, however, Kojima and the team kept the polygon count low and leaned more on creative use of textures and rendering perspective. Thanks to these thoughtful techniques, Metal Gear Solid shows very few clipping errors and the characters move very smoothly.

Textures were also used creatively to create a more realistic and engaging environment. Rather than having a large number of unique textures, MGS creatively layered a smaller number of common textures to generate a unique look for a given surface. There was much creativity used to design and store levels – possibly using a BSP (Binary Space Partitioning ) engine since most of the game took place in corridors or boxy/cube styled levels. This technique was pioneered by the DOOM and Quake engines.

The effective use of polygons and textures was a solid foundation for Metal Gear Solid, but Konami took it one step further by having a dedicated “optimization” programmer that went through all the code to find crucial points of the engine to turn into assembly code. (Mostly to get models to fit nicely in the PS1’s small 1kb fast-cache)

On top of the already impressive game engine, the attention to detail, considering the technical limitations, is astounding. You make footprints in the snow that will eventually get covered up by snowfall. You can identify guards and other characters by their breath in the cold air. Water effects are accurate, light sourcing is dead-on, and the textures are solid.

Another way that Metal Gear Solid pushed the limits does not have anything to do with graphics, but instead it depends on the pure creativity of Kojima and the MGS team. The game had a numbers of points in the story where the memory card and/or controller is utilized creatively to enhance the game experience or serve as an “Easter egg”. If you don’t mind some spoilers, you can read more about these instances at Wikipedia.

If you want to dig into some other interesting technical info regarding Metal Gear Solid, check out this information about porting MGS to the PC.
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Crash Bandicoot Series

Release Date: September 9, 1996 (original) – October 31, 1998 (third installment)

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Key Technical Features:

  • Team created their own development ecosystem to maximize PlayStation hardware for the purposes of 3D platformers – complete with custom programming language and texture compressors.
  • Used uncommon 512×240 video mode with lots of shaded but untextured polygons for high-performance cartoon-like look.
  • Developed multi-joint weighting system for character models to help with cartoon-like animation
  • Sequels added as Z-buffer-like water effects, weather, reflections, particles, talking hologram heads in additions to more free-roaming style and increased view distances.

The two guys at Naughty Dog did an amazing job of being relatively new to the game dev scene and looking for an opportunity (filling the gap of a 3D platformer, Virtua Fighter and Ridge Racer/Virtua Racing had fighting and racing covered at the time, and simultaneously trying to fill a gap of a mascot character for Sony).

They also got their hands dirty quickly and kept learning as they worked on their first fully–3D game. They did a lot of impressive problem-solving and innovation, especially for a small upstart, but didn’t rest on their laurels after a single success. They continued to work on refining both the gameplay and engine of their game and also their internal development processes as they worked on the sequels. This process could easily be compared to what we have all experienced as gamers: the first time you play a game or a certain level, you’re trying to out what needs to be done to be successful. But after you made it through most of the battle the first time, you now have a better idea how to play through it again – learning from your mistakes and taking new approaches that could work better. (See this classic scene from Scott Pilgrim vs The World ** spoilers **)  While the original Crash Bandicoot was pushing the PlayStation when it arrived, this constant refinement and growth at Naughty Dog resulted in Crash 3 pushing the limits all the more.(You can read about Naughty Dog’s evolution in their processes here)

Naughty Dog started Crash’s foundation by utilizing the 512×240 video mode that most developers skipped, but when they used it for shaded, but untextured polygons, they realized that it resulted in a sharper, more cartoon-like result that rendered just as fast as the lower-resolution modes. They also were able to use more polygons, so they worked around the PS1’s lack of texture correction and polygon clipping.

To help with the more cartoon-like animation, they used a sophisticated three or four-joint weighing system instead of a 1-joint system with few “bones” that a lot of developers were using at the time. They used high-end animation software on their PCs and then mapped every vertex for every frame at 30 fps since the PS1 couldn’t render it in realtime. The also wrote their own vertex compressors in assembly language to optimize the processing efficiency.

To develop Crash’s compelling environments, they studied visibility calculation intensely so they could handle many more polygons that most developers thought. Andy Gavin shared,

“We did experiments in free roaming camera control and settled on branching rail camera + pre-calculation = gorgeous visuals. The idea was that the camera would follow along next to, behind, or in front of the character, generally looking at him, moving on a “track” through the world. Dave and I experimented with pre-calculating the visibility and sort (the Playstation had no z-buffer, and hence no easy way to sort polygons) ahead of time on the SGI workstations the artists used. Although painful and expensive, this worked really well. As long as you could never SEE more than a set number of polygons (800 for Crash 1, 1300 for Crash 2 or 3) from any given position we could have perfect occlusion and sort, with no runtime cost. We conceived of using trees, cliffs, walls, and twists and turns in the environment to hide a lot of the landscape from view – but it would be there, just around the corner.”

Andy also did some other crazy coding work that would help create a system for making their work efficient and make the most of the Playstation’s resources. Their level designs came out at about 8 to 16 megs each, so he developed an algorithmic texture packer that would efficiently cram the levels into the PS1’s 2 megs of RAM. Some of the levels came out at 128meg, so Dave created a bidirectional 10x compressor to help get the 128meg levels down into 12 and also developed a tool for managing the construction of the gigantic 3D worlds. On top of all that, Andy created a new programming language (with Lisp syntax) that featured “all sorts of built in state machine support (very useful with game objects), powerful macros, dynamic loading etc.”.

All these incredibly custom approaches and innovations led to rumors that Naughty Dog had access to some secret development library from Sony. In reality, Sony’s own developers struggled to pull off a lot of the same results when developing similar games.

As much as we praised Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (above) for their innovative techniques for reducing load times down to a minimum, Soul Reaver’s Game Director, Amy Hennig was quick to point out that Naughty Dog’s work on Crash Bandicoot was another early example of this type of problem-solving. Naughty Dog actually took a different approach that helped with both load time and figuring out which items to load into the system’s limited memory. Andy recalls,

“The Crash series employs an extremely complicated virtual memory scheme which dynamically swaps into memory any kind of game component: geometry, animation, texture, code, sound, collision data, camera data, etc. A workstation based tool called NPT implements an expert system for laying out the disk. This tool belongs to the class of formal Artificial Intelligence programs. Its job is to figure out how the 500 to 1000 resources that make up a Crash level can be arranged so as to never have more than 1.2 megabytes needed in memory at any time. A multithreaded virtual memory implementation follows the instructions produced by the tool in order to achieve this effect at run time. Together they manage and optimize the essential resources of main, texture, and sound RAM based on a larger CD based database.”

Because of this, the team was actually a bit concerned that Crash was accessing the CD more than the PS1’s drive was rated for. So if you ever notice that it seems like the drive is being read a lot while playing, you’ll know why.

For Crash 2, the team at Naughty Dog rewrote approximately 80% of the game engine and tool code based on the lessons they learned and the bottlenecks they saw in the first game. In the end, Crash 2 aimed for twice as much on the screen while maintaining the 30 frames per second. It also added more effects such as Z-buffer-like water effects, weather, reflections, particles, talking hologram heads, etc.

Crash 3 challenged the team to develop new engines or sub-engines to power a more free-roaming 3D style, up to 10X longer view distances, and more level of detail features. They had to overhaul the background polygon resource manager and the AI memory manager to handle the increasingly large firehouse of data that had to be processed for the game.
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Spyro the Dragon Series

Release Date: September 9, 1998 (original) – October 24, 2000 (third installment)

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Key Technical Features:

  • Offered full flying movement that controlled phenomenally before analogue controls available.
  • Pioneered “Level of Detail” system to boost draw distances (without “fog”).
  • Pristine polygon shading for solid cartoon look.
  • Sequels added ice reflections, semi-dynamic lighting and a lot of impressive particle systems for fire, water, smoke, explosions, and other graphical refinements.

After Super Mario 64 and Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie on the N64 has made its mark and Naughty Dog was about to release its third installment with Crash Bandicoot: Warped, another upstart studio by the name of Insomniac Games unleashed a new platformer for the PlayStation with a 3D panoramic engine to allow the players to have open exploration without restrictions of how far you can go.

With this ambitious plan of flying and full movement, the Insomniac team needed to figure out how to handle long view distances without the “fog” that was common in this console generation. Insomniac developer Peter Hastings explained the team’s fresh take on the problem: “There were actually two separate worlds being rendered in a Spyro level. Each level had a detailed version built out of textured polygons, and a much more impressionistic, simple version built out of fast-rendering untextured polygons. For anything near the player, the detailed world was drawn, but for distant objects the simple version was used. This ‘Level-Of-Detail’ system is now used by pretty much every game on the planet, but at the time it was quite new.” Alex Hastings, Insomniac’s VP of Software built the panoramic ending using Assembly draw routines for seven different renderers that worked on a different level of detail in the environment (Alex claimed that 80% of Spyro was written in assembly for peak efficiency). Alex knew that the PlayStation could handle many more polygons than the other consoles (and even many PCs) at the time, so him programming these ambitious engines in assembly was the best way for their new title to stand out from the crowd.

To supplement the expansive worlds, Matt Whiting and his experience designing flight systems for NASA was a critical part of developing Spyro’s control system and camera code. Hastings praised Whiting’s contributions, “the smoothness of the controls is owed to his ability to squeeze a great deal of matrix algebra into the tiny slice of computational time that the PlayStation could give us.” The natural and smooth controls found in Spyro are especially impressive when you realize this was before the PlayStation controller had analogue controls – you get just as good control with the standard D-Pad.

Being essentially down the hall from the guys at Naughty Dog, the team at Insomniac often traded technical tips and tricks with each other. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Spyro takes some pages out of the Crash playbook to use untextured polygons, but add Gouraud shading to achieve the great cartoon styling for the characters. This technique also lended itself well to sharp character models and high frame rates and sense of speed (especially in the chase levels featured in Spyro 2 and 3).

By the time Spyro 3 was published, Insomniac was pulling off great ice reflections, semi-dynamic lighting and a lot of impressive particle systems for fire, water, smoke, and explosions. There were also many subtle graphical and animation refinements from the previous installments that were already technical marvels. It was obvious that the team had become skilled professionals of creating a clean and cohesive visual package on the PlayStation.
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Tobal Nº2

Release Date: April 25, 1997

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Key Technical Features:

  • Runs at 60fps at 512 x 512 (scaled to 640×480/ 480i) while very rarely had awkward polygon crashes
  • Cleaner image quality vs Tekken 3 and the use of mostly Gouraud shading on the characters helped it age well.
  • Incredible animation and full 3D movement before Soul Calibur (and possibly executed it better)

DreamFactory was a modest but star-filled development firm headed by Shiichi Ishii, a developer on Virtua Fighter and director for Tekken. With his industry experience, it shouldn’t be a surprise that their first projects, Tobal No. 1 and Tobal 2, were not only stunning technical feats, but were also some of the first pure 3D fighting games – not just 3D characters on a 2D plane. Namco eventually worked on this concept with Soul Edge and Soul Calibur, but Tobal pioneered it on the PlayStation and pulled it off with a superior resolution and frame rate. Within Tobal, you can dash towards, jump around, and circle around your opponent with complete fluidity and confidence. In another great detail, the characters block differently for each incoming attack.

Tobal No. 2, in particular, feels very organic, smooth, and vibrant. The animation in this brawler is silky smooth with its high frame rate and it has some great touches that gives the game some personality. Tobal 2’s visuals actually rival some N64 titles as the character models are very smooth (unlike Tobal No. 1’s more blocky presentation). Designed by Dragonball Z and Chrono Trigger character designer, Akira Toriyama, the characters have an anime-inspired look to them, but still feel very human. The Gouraud shading and the vibrant colors bring in this feel, but avoid it feeling cartoon-like. The lighting effects are very nice looking as well, especially on the game’s fireballs.

The backgrounds are a combination of 3D objects (sometimes with impressive animation) in the foreground and 2D backdrops in the back. It’s a nice compromise compared to the pure 2D in something like Tekken and Tobal No. 2’s backgrounds have improved significantly from the first installment.

Even with all these great visuals, the Tobal games (and DreamFactory’s other fighter, Ehrgeiz) are the only Playstation fighters to hit 480i at 60fps without many polygon sacrifices. The games actually ran at a very sharp (relatively speaking) 512×512 resolution and then scaled to 640×480. Not many games used the PSX’s 640×480 mode because most games focused on the shimmering textures we all love in. 2stead of the shaded polygons that Tobal pulls off so well.

Unlike Tobal No. 1, No. 2 was never released in the US. It is unfortunate as Tobal No. 2 improves on the original in every aspect. Tobal was also just as impressive (if not more) than the mighty Tekken 3, but we will get into a comparison in just a bit.
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Tekken 3

Release Date: March 20, 1997

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Key Technical Features:

  • Near arcade-perfect port of a cutting-edge title
  • 480i (scaled from 384×480) at 60 fps
  • Quick, motion-captured animation
  • Textured polygons for a more realistic look (though they may not have aged as well)

Sega’s Virtua Fighter had broken into the fighting scene with revolutionary 3D technology in 1993, but within a year or two, Katsuhiro Harada was at Namco working on way to create a strong rival to Sega’s creation. His initial research project revolved around how the body reacts in 3D movement and to replicate something like judo or Chinese kenpo. Harada admits that due to a lack of balancing, “Tekken 1 isn’t really a fighting game. It should be called a human body action game. They have abilities, and they hit each other, but it’s not really a martial arts game.” Developer Yutaka Kounoe added, “the first two games were created as an experiment; even the developers couldn’t predict how it would turn out… The third game which I was in charge of, was a more calculated production.”

With the practice being rather new, Tekken 3 marked the first time Namco used true motion capture techniques for the game (as opposed for simple reference – although their marketing department would mention it for promotion).

Converting from the original arcade versions is always a challenge, but with the third installment, not only was the source game more refined, but the PlayStation port was almost arcade-perfect. The animation speed is impressive and the textures are carefully crafted to make the limited polygon models look as solid as possible. On the original Tekken, the PlayStation version had its animation compressed of 30% from the arcade version. By the time the team had improved their skills for Tekken 3, compression was much less severe – only reduced by 10%. The main compromises from the arcade are a slightly reduced polygon count and the backgrounds are 2D graphics instead of the the sharper 3D backgrounds found in the arcade.

It is interesting to compare some of the most innovative 3D fighters from the era – Tekken 3, Tobal 1 & 2, Virtua Fighter 2 (on the Sega Saturn), and Dead or Alive all had some impressive technical capabilities, but also have some distinct advantages and disadvantages. Tekken 3 and Tobal No. 2 are the top contenders on the PlayStation and it is up for debate which one actually pushed the PlayStation hardware most. Both games run 60 fps at 480i – the best frame rate and video output you can get on the PlayStation. One could argue that the textured polygons in Tekken 3 are more taxing than the shaded polygons in Tobal (but the shading may have actually aged better). However, Tobal No. 2 has 3D elements in its backgrounds (vs pure 2D for Tekken 3) and Tobal No. 2 has more free-range 3D movement to process.

For those interested in more detail, here’s a great Making-of article for Tekken 3
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Gran Turismo 2

Release Date: December 11, 1999

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Key Technical Features:

  • Detailed car models and lighting effects that pushed realism for the 32-bit generation
  • Dynamic instant replay mode

As one of the biggest mainstream hits with an attention to detail, we couldn’t overlook Gran Turismo 2’s drive for realism. While the original Gran Turismo was groundbreaking at its release, the sequel had subtle improvements such as lighting effects and car rendering that made it one of the most convincing PlayStation games on the market.

Gran Turismo also has mastered the lighting-effect trick that gives cars a shiny sheen as they drive from camera to camera – an impressive visual that’s coupled with the speed-sensitive hubcap-rotation effects that accurately portray the “whoosh” of cars going past. I realize that the car shining is just a visual trick intended to add to the realism, but you may notice that when cars go through a tunnel, the sunlight still bounces off their hoods.

While he didn’t publicly comment on the sequel, lead developer Kazunori Yamauchi estimated that the original Gran Turismo utilised around 75% of the PlayStation’s maximum performance. Based on the subtle improvements, it is easy to assume Gran Turismo 2 is more toward the 80% to 85% range.

While they ended up becoming an annoyance to gamers over time, the instant replays were a technical showpiece at the time capturing a cinematic point of view to the race, dynamically showing off the top-notch car models and environments.

On a side note, if you would really like to see Gran Turismo 2 look really good, you may find that if you play the game on a PS2 it benefits from the console’s texture smoothing. And Dreamcast owners will get the biggest graphical treat if they use the Gran Turismo 2 Bleemcast disc on Sega’s wonderful white box.
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Ridge Racer Type 4

Release Date: December 3, 1998

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Key Technical Features:

  • Solid 30fps while rocking detailed textures
  • Entrancing environmental designs that play off of vehicles well.
  • Solid light sourcing including off of brake lights

The original Ridge Racer was one of PlayStation’s first big system pushers. Regardless of what you thought of Ridge Racer as a game, you had to agree that it was an excellent port of the arcade version that showed the true potential of Sony’s 32-bit wonder. However, in order to compete with the high standard set by the Gran Turismo series, Namco had really bumped up the graphic quality of the Ridge Racer series in Type 4 while staying true to its arcade roots. Ridge Racer Type 4 features a smooth framerate locked solidly on 30 frames per second and lots of detailed textures throughout the game. Also, it hits that target much more reliably that Gran Turismo 2.

The environment design and use of color is especially praiseworthy. When you are cruising around the tracks, the moody skyscapes either share the warmth of summer or put you under the trance of night. The lighting effects on the cars and roads for night time driving give the game a stylish edge that retro gamers appreciate in Japanese-made titles. The whole environment of the game is a work of art and was otherwise unseen on the Playstation.

Ridge Racer Type 4 also works around standard limitations of the PlayStation hardware, such as affine texture mapping issues, by using a healthy volume of triangles for the track’s surface. This approach minimizes warping compared to other Playstation games, including the original Ridge Racer.

The highly-detailed tracks have been arranged in such a way that scenery pop-up is kept to a minimum (except for straight-aways, but it’s barely noticeable). The instant replay mode after a race isn’t quite as dynamic and as up to the quality as Gran Turismo, but it’s certainly detailed enough to hold its own.

Ridge Racer Type 4 has a great use of light sourcing and things like brake lights give off tracers in tunnels. There are still some imperfections in this fourth Ridge Racer increment, however, such as seeing the opposing cars through walls. Nevertheless, this late Playstation racer is still a great sight to behold on Sony’s 32-bit platform.
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WipEout 3 / Wipeout XL

Release Date: September 8, 1999

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Key Technical Features:

  • Franchise running 30 fps early on Playstation’s timeline.
  • WipEout 3 also ran in High Resolution mode (720×480 / 480i)
  • Cool physics to give the racing craft an authentic floating feel.
  • Precise control with analogue controls
  • Quake Disrupter bomb actually alters the track with the a ripple effect.

While Ridge Racer was the main technical showpiece during the Japanese launch of the Playstation, WipEout was one of the biggest draws during the Western launch. The team at Psygnosis showed remarkable talent in creating such a stunning 3D racer running at 30fps so early in the Playstation’s life. On top of pure speed, WipEout pulled off the impressive floating element of these futuristic vehicles. The game’s design language and the soundtrack were also crucial to setting itself apart from its competition.

Dominic Mallinson was a lead programmer on WipEout and later became producer on the series (he also went on to become Vice President of Research and Development at Sony’s SCEA division). He attributed much of WipEout’s early success to the team’s background and skill set, “we had a lot of experience with 3D in-house and our artists understood how to create models, render and animate. On the console programming side, we had to scramble a little. We had a few PC developers with experience and we brought them in-house and asked them to help train others. Fortunately, we’d already hired some recent University graduates with strong maths backgrounds to help with tools for the artists and those guys quickly made the transition from off-line to real-time 3D.” He also added, “Probably the biggest technical issue that I remember was dealing with the lack of perspective correct texturing and having to sub-divide the polygons in the track so that they looked OK up-close where the near clip plane is. The problem is that the resolution of the polygon XY positions and the necessity to have T-joints led to cracks in the track. We never did eliminate all the cracks. ”

Even though the game was an early success, the team often focused on the less enthusiastic reviews of the game. WipEout’s Co-Creator, Nick Burcombe admitted, ““We were reading the 7s more than the 9s and nodding about the things that could be improved. It really focused our attention on what we needed to achieve for a sequel.” WipEout 2097 was the team’s second attempt at fleshing out their vision and trying to address the weaknesses that surfaced in the criticism. From a gameplay perspective, the primary changes were the weapons (making it less about slowing down opponents, but bringing more of a grown-up Mario Kart combat strategy) and the way the ships reacted to walls. From a graphical standpoint, the new Quake Disruptor bomb sends an impressive track-altering ripple down the track. The game also improves some of the light sourcing and visual effects to increase the polish.

This leads us to WipEout 3, which is an easy selection of the most technically impressive installment on the PlayStation. Overall, this third installment is faster, deeper, and more refined than its predecessors. It’s also worth noting that support for the Dualshock analog controller also helps give the game more precise control and force feedback.

Graphically, WipEout 3 really shines: the race craft model have more detail and the environments feel more immersive. The craft’s contrails also now act as light sources on the surrounding environments, so a ship’s blue streak will color the walls of a tunnel. The effect is dramatic, especially when you have ships with a number of different colored contrails in a tunnel.

For a nice visual history of the WipEout series, check out HellfireWZ’s “WipEout – Through the Ages” video

Graphics and music have always been especially important to Wipeout, and these later installments, they’re still quite impressive. Pop-up is nonexistent in single-player and not too rough in the multiplayer.
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Driver 2

Release Date: November 13, 2000

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Key Technical Features:

  • Phenomenal execution of an open-world concept considering limited RAM on PS1.
  • Vehicles had crash deformations and other detailed considerations for realism.
  • Direct mode featuring free-form camera system.

This innovative and influential series was set out to mimic the feel of 1960s and 1970s car chase films and put you in (partially) faithful recreations of actual city layouts such as Miami, LA, and New York that you could explore in an open world environment. Driver 2 expanded on the free-roam structure of the original and added the ability to step out of your car to explore on foot and commandeer other vehicles in the game’s open world environments. If this sounds familiar, you could say Driver 2 was very influential on the PS2-era Grand Theft Auto titles and the other “sandbox” games that were spawned from GTA’s success. Of course, the Driver series was running well on the PS1 and squeezing what performance it could out of the hardware to make it all happen.

Just as Crash Bandicoot and Spyro gradually redefined what was possible in the platformer genre with 3D capabilities, Driver broke through the expectations for driving games. Up until then, 3D games were very limited in where you could go (although Midtown Madness was released just a couple months earlier on the PC).

Tony Oakden, the lead programmer on Driver, shared the the original Driver started out as a PC game, but was moved to the PS1 as it became a dominant platform, “Technically it was a bit of a nightmare to port code from the PC to the PlayStation… The PlayStation isn’t particularly hard to program for, in my opinion, but by the late 90s it was already quite dated compared to current generation PC with dedicated video cards… The processor was quite a bit slower than the standard PC of the day, there was hardly any RAM, no hardware floating point support at all and a rather primitive rendering system with no Z-Buffer or perspective correction… “So we had to take the version made for the PC, which had all that extra processing power and hardware, and make it work on the Playstation. We had to pull all sorts of tricks to make the game work let alone look good.”

“I think there are a few glitches but you have to remember that this game was pushing the boundaries in terms of what the PlayStation could do. A lot of people said we’d never be able to make a free roaming driving game on the PlayStation at all. That’s the thing about true pioneers isn’t it? They are exciting and great but tend to be a bit rough around the edges.”

In addition to managing the large worlds and all the graphical and data implications that accommodate them, Driver also focused on effects to the vehicles such as crash deformations, flying hubcaps during sharp turns, and smoke from the exhaust pipe and burned rubber. However, when you learn that some of the team members also worked on Destruction Derby, this seems like a natural progression.

On top of the already impressive game, Driver also featured a Director Mode that let the player shoot and cut their own mini car chase movie with a simple, freeform camera system. Most modern games have a similar camera, but it’s mostly for internal purposes of taking media screenshots and trailers. However, touches like this showed that the team at Reflections had a real passion for creativity, maxing out the hardware, and making people take notice.

The texture maps are improved in Driver 2, but there isn’t much more room for improvement over the original with all the complexity of the free-roam environment. Unfortunately, the frame rate does take a hit a bit more and there are some pop-up issues. You can tell the team was really trying to squeeze every last bit that the Playstation could muster.
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Omega Boost

Release Date: April 22, 1999

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Key Technical Features:

  • Gives impression of free open-space movement while keeping system resources conserved.
  • Impressive trail and particle effects, reflections, and explosions
  • Can run as high as 60 fps, but can easily maintain 30 fps

In between their work on Gran Turismo and Gran Turismo 2, the team at Polyphony Digital dove into a completely different genre, but still managed to re-define what one could expect out of the Playstation hardware. Omega Boost was a stunning mech-based shooter that had a hybrid on-rails/free-roaming mechanic in open space. Even though the game is on rails for the most part, the large “open” space field gives the illusion of moving where you want.

The game features mecha designs by Shoji Kawamori of Macross fame and the graphics age quite well. Omega Boost is interesting evolution of the shmup genre that wanted to bridge the gap of 2D sprite-based artwork and 3D capabilities that the 32-bit era afforded.. The graphical presentation is impressive, especially during some of the faster interactions. Amazing trail and particle effects are used for many things, reflective surfaces cover the mechs and enemies, and enormous and beautiful explosions erupt every time you take out a boss.

Omega Boost often runs at 60fps, but can occasionally drop to 30fps. Despite the dips in the technical frame-rate, this impressive range in frame rate coupled with the overdraw effects and particles make it seem smoother than it is.

Overall, Omega Boost is a fresh take on a classic shoot-em-up. In some ways, the game reminds me a bit of a 3D take on the arcade classic, Defender – along with the inclusion of a map indicator to help you find where more enemies are. If you enjoy space and mech combat you’ll feel right at home.

It’s also worth mentioning that if you’re a fan of the Panzer Dragoon series on the Sega Saturn, this game should appeal to you – it even has some of the same lock-on shooting mechanism. This is all less surprising when you learn that Omega Boost’s lead designer and programmer, Yuji Yasuhara worked on Panzer Dragoon Zwei with the recently-disbanded Team Andromeda.
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Quake II

Release Date: September 30, 1999

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Key Technical Features:

  • Completely custom engine the work around the Playstation’s engine instead of attempting to port the PC game.
  • A modern (for the time) FPS running well with modest sacrifices.
  • Runs in 512 x 240 at smooth fps regardless of number of players

John Carmack had an astounding talent for coming up with new ways to push the limits of hardware (primarily PCs) to display 3D environments and Quake II was one of the biggest breakthroughs in an already impressive string of achievements. Of course, Quake II was developed with a modern (at the time) personal computer equipped with cutting-edge accelerated graphic cards and the Sony Playstation had a much more modest hardware setup (especially when it came to the limited amount of RAM).

Instead of porting Quake II, the development firm, Hammerhead effectively re-created the game from scratch with the Playstation’s hardware limitations in mind while trying to keep the PS1 version as faithful to the original as possible. The end result was incredibly impressive considering the circumstances and became the standard for how first-person shooters on the Playstation (or even the Saturn and N64) should be judged.

Quake II for the Playstation can easily be put in an extreme class of PC to Console ports that focus on extreme optimization for fixed hardware, cutting corners in all the places that more people won’t notice. In an interview, Chris Stanforth, head of development at Hammerhead,  shared

“Rather than simply converting the code, we looked at Quake2 in terms of function and figured out ways to replicate that on the PS. This is no criticism of Id’s (superb) approach, just an illustration of the fact that for the best possible result you must work with, and never against the hardware.”

To compensate for the lack of a floating-point capable processor, Hammerhead tackled the challenge with coding the main computational parts of the game engine in assembler and using algorithms with an ideal balance of accuracy and efficiency.  Stanforth added,

“We learned a great deal during the ShadowMaster project, although much of that knowledge was gained too late or was inappropriate for use at that time. For Quake II we started again from scratch with a redesigned 3D engine taking full advantage of what we’d learned over the last year. We use a few clever tricks to optimize object clipping, machine-code cores for the most frequently used drawing and math functions, but primarily it’s the way the engine works as a whole that provides the speed.”

To work around the RAM limitation, Hammerhead reformatted the original Quake II maps into chunks that could be handled by the Playstation and then reconstructed them to be as close the original as possible. To keep authenticity levels high, the team avoided using common visual tricks like fogging or strategically placing walls to keep the draw-distance from getting out of hand. Some of the larger levels had to be split over two loads on the Playstation to help compensate for the RAM deficiency, however. There is no skybox for the levels (many gamers may never notice) – instead, a flat Gouraud-textured purple sky is drawn around the top of the level. Other compromises compared to the PC version include removing the ability to crouch (mostly to simplify the control scheme for the Playstation controller).

Many graphical effects were able to replicated in creative ways on the Playstation. Colored lights for levels and enemies and yellow highlights for gunfire and explosions manage to make an appearance on the Playstation version with the addition of lens flare effects located around the light sources on the original lightmaps. Hammerhead’s engine also uses particles to render blood, debris, and rail gun beams to increase the authenticity.

Quake II on the PS1 manages to run in 512 by 240, at a smooth 30fps regardless of the number of players. There is a minor loss of detail for the four-player mode, but given the relatively small display area (given the smaller displays of the day), it was a modest sacrifice.
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Alien Resurrection

Release Date: October 10, 2000

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Key Technical Features:

  • Another impressive FPS built to work around modest hardware.
  • Fully 3D including multi-levels, platforms, ladders, and vents
  • Impressive lighting effects that add punch to the dimly-lit areas that give true Alien atmosphere.
  • Pioneered twin-analogue stick controls for console FPS

Easily overlooked for a handful of reasons, Alien Resurrection on the Playstation is actually an interesting example of a quality first-person shooter that had to deal with the PS1’s hardware limitations.

Alien Resurrection originally started out in development as a third-person horror title in the image of Resident Evil and was originally targeted for a late 1997 release to line up with the film’s release. The original game was then scrapped as Argonaut Games (the company behind the SuperFX Chip on the Super Nintendo) was tasked with creating a first-person shooter based on the movie property instead. Instead of pumping out a mediocre shooter, Argonaut worked on an impressive 3D engine that was ahead of its time. Everything is completely 3D with multi-levels, platforms, ladders, and vents all present.

Many of the best moments in the Alien films are all about atmosphere and suspense and Argonaut tunes the game engine toward accomplishing that goal while simultaneously showing off some nice effects and avoiding some of the Playstation’s weaknesses.

The game often takes place in dimly-lit areas that not only help show off some cool lighting and shadow effects from gunfire, explosions, and red emergency strobes (which feels very in-line with the film’s atmosphere), but the darkness also hides some of the imperfections that are typically apparent in Playstation games. In addition to lighting and explosions, steam blasts and scripted events like a alien bursting through a doorway play out dramatically.

And while many of the levels are fairly expansive, it uses the claustrophobic nature of the Alien setting to help keep draw distance and RAM usage under control.

Having been delayed a full three years after the Alien Resurrection film had been released had some benefits as Half-Life (released a year earlier in 1999) seems to be a bit of an influence in visuals and the minimalistic but engaging sound design. Great sound design with excellent environmental effects and Alien screeches right out of the Fox archive immerses you into the horror setting. The lack of background music leaves you to wander eerily quiet hallways and listen for Aliens through background hums of equipment or clinking of chains. Distant, echoing sounds of screams and gunfire suggest battles elsewhere in the ship, and the chirps of the motion tracker raise hairs on the back of your neck just as they did in the films.

Alien Resurrection was the one of the first console FPS (Uprising-X is possibly the first) to really use a twin-analogue stick control model that had moving and aiming assigned to different sticks on the Dualshock (players also have the option of using the Playstation mouse). The game was criticized heavily for this decision in 2000 as it was so different from people were used to. In hindsight, however Alien Resurrection looks innovative and influential as its configuration has now been embraced by nearly every modern console FPS.
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Colony Wars 3: Red Sun

Release Date: May 2, 2000

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Key Technical Features:

  • Open space flight experience with slick frame rate
  • Pre-rendered lighting and fragmenting of destroyed craft to conserve processing.

The space flight genre had been explored for years on personal computers, but with more concrete 3D becoming possible on Sony’s console, the team at Psygnosis was able to explore and innovate to create a believable experience of freely flying in space using new hardware and software tool sets. Star Fox 64 was released just a few months earlier, but even Nintendo fans in the era admitted that Colony Wars looked more impressive than their new Star Fox installment.

Overall, the Colony Wars graphics engine did sometimes show some polygon dropout and texture tearing, but still managed to push the limits of the Playstation in terms of speed and detail. The series was always known for a slick frame rate for a top-notch space flight experience.

The enemy ships are colorful and intricate, right down to fluctuating thrusters and cockpit design. Lead designer Chris Roberts also discussed how he created a DOS-based tool to pre-render the lighting on the larger ships and control “how the ships fragmented when destroyed and where the docking bays, engines, etc. were for each ship.”

Any one of the Colony Wars games could easily find a home on this list, but as with other franchises mentioned on this list, the momentum of the technical achievements of the series kept building as the development team’s skills matured In Red Sun, primary improvements include enhanced lighting effects, additional space phenomena added, more detail and variety added to land-based areas, and reduced load times with better data and memory management.

Having been released in 2000, Colony Wars: Red Sun didn’t get quite the critical exposure that its predecessor did since after the Dreamcast and PS2’s eye candy was being distributed. All the refinements and enhancements that Red Sun saw over the original installment were easy to overlook compared to what gamers were seeing out of the new consoles.
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Threads of Fate

Release Date: October 14, 1999

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Key Technical Features:

  • Beautiful fully 3D-rendered RPG
  • Clean, but texture-mapped character models that feel expressive and anime-inspired
  • Backgrounds rendered in real-time to give cut-scene feel without relying of pre-made cinematics.

The Sony Playstation was not at a loss for beautiful RPGs – especially from the likes of Square. Throughout the Playstation’s life, Square took many different approaches to bringing beauty and innovation to the console. In the late 90s it was easy to get mesmerized by the stunning cutscenes and the pre-rendered graphics that were executed so well, but with Threads of Fate (also known as Dewprism in Japan) the RPG powerhouse fully embraced real-time 3D and managed to make it shine in a timeless fashion.

Square Product Development Division 3 was specially responsible for the technical innovation in Threads of Fate (the team was also responsible for Chrono Cross and Xenogears) and built off of much of what was learned from Square’s earlier Playstation projects (some have mentioned that it built off some concepts found in Brave Fencer Musashi)

The debate of the Playstation’s 3D capabilities vs that of the Saturn (especially when you look at the beautiful on-foot areas of Panzer Dragoon Saga) was heated pre–1999, however Threads of Fate was an excellent example of the types of character modeling the Saturn struggles with. Instead of the rough 3D models we typically experienced in the 32-bit era, characters in Threads of Fate are cleaned up and smoothed out with minimal pixelated edges. The faces feel more anime-inspired and expressive. The full character models show minimal collision detection errors despite all the animations with limbs, faces, weapons, and clothing. Instead of relying on Gouraud-shaded polygons (like more of the cartoon-like games and much of the N64 library), Threads of Fate upgraded to texture maps on many of its polygons, which added a solid level of detail to characters.

Backgrounds are also rendered in real-time, but feel like they belong in a cut-scene from one of its peers. The end result is a cinematic game that doesn’t rely on cinematic cut-scenes. Combining the cinematic ability with the simplistic and child-like art-direction, Threads of Fate feels timeless, evokes an emotional response at times, and provided something unique in an era that could be likened to an awkward adolescence of 3D gaming.
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Street Fighter Alpha 3

Release Date: December 23, 1998

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Key Technical Features:

  • Made the most of limited RAM and put up good showing against the Saturn’s port w/ 4MB RAM expansion requirement.
  • Used polygon hit-detection boxes instead of sprite-based to reduce memory and shift usage to character animations

The Sega Saturn always had the edge for 2D games, especially when paired with its 1MB/4MB RAM Expansion cart. The Playstation always seemed to have to make significant sacrifices for their big 2D arcade fighter ports due to the system’s lack of a RAM.

When the Saturn started to die off (especially outside of Japan), Capcom finally focused on pushing the Playstation to its 2D limit, it found that it could finesse their code into pumping out 30 frames per second of one of their latest arcade hits with relatively acceptable list of compromises.

The Playstation actually received the first home port of Street Fighter Alpha 3, which makes the port all the more impressive. To utilize some of the Playstation’s 3D capabilities and work around the 2D limitation, Capcom replaced the sprite-based combat hit boxes with polygon boxes. This technique not only catered to the Playstation’s strengths, but it also reduced the memory usage required for hit detection and reserved that memory for focusing on things like character animations.

Capcom did let some compromises show in the Playstation port, but more weren’t too impactful on most players. Sound was heavily compressed, which caused the voices and sound effects to be more muffled than later home ports. Some fake transparent sprites were also swapped in for actual transparencies. Some frames of character animation are missing, but more players won’t notice and the sacrifice was rather respectable for the PS1. One of the more noticeable compromises was there was more loading time (with static character artwork) between battles. On the bright side, the Playstation port did add extras such as six more characters and some new game modes.

Overall, the Playstation port of Street Fighter Alpha 3 is a solid gameplay experience with some of the tightest controls amongst console ports and is right up there with Castlevania Symphony of the Night for top 2D honors on the platform. Street Fighter Alpha 3, in my opinion, is the best 2D fighting game Capcom has ever made for the PlayStation.
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Capcom vs SNK Pro

Release Date: April 18, 2002

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Key Technical Features:

  • Port of a NAOMI (arcade version of Dremacast) fighter set the bar high and delivered surprisingly well.
  • Maintained animated floor and background elements while keeping other compromises to a minimum.

As if porting Street Fighter Alpha 3 (a 1998 arcade release) wasn’t a tall enough order, Capcom also decided to bring Capcom vs SNK (a 2000 game) to the PS1 as well. This fighting game developer rivalry-turned-collaboration is best known for ports to the likes of the Dreamcast (and the sequel also saw ports to the PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube). Capcom used the NAOMI hardware (a stronger arcade version of Dreamcast hardware) for Capcom vs SNK instead of the aging CPS II, so they were able to do a lot of cool graphical techniques and presentation eye candy to breath fresh life into sprite-based 2D fighters as the genre was starting to lose mainstream appeal.

The compromises is the Playstation port are strategically subtle and are more than acceptable considering what the developers had to head with. Capcom vs SNK on the arcade had a slick graphical presentation that give chills to hardcore 2D fighting fans in 2000. Capcom managed to maintain most of that feel on the PS1. If you know where to look, you can see that there’s less flashy animation in the round intro graphics, but to the casual fan, it still looks solid. The characters are missing their dynamic shadows against the backgrounds, but its just feels more like a classic 2D fighter with them removed. Character sprites are somewhat reduced, but they look pretty darn close to the originals. The HUD where the power bars are shown have lower-resolution artwork, but no big deal.

What is impressive is that many of the stages that had animated elements like floors on the construction zone are still dynamic and give the impression of being like the arcade version.  Of course, like on Street Fighter Alpha 3, there are increased load times and downgraded sound as well, but nothing too bad. These aspects simply weren’t as high of a priority to utilize the hardware as those that affected the core gameplay and presentation of the battles.

Marvel vs Capcom was also a hot title around this era and featured the tag team feature in the arcade and on the Dreamcast port. The Playstation port was severely crippled, cutting the ability to switch characters within a round, among other things. Capcom vs SNK, however has a different approach to the multi-character team matches. The arcade version and all its port only switch characters when the first fighter on your team is knocked out, so Capcom didn’t have to stress as much about dynamically switching characters on the Playstation. Between having a few more years to hone their skills (Capcom vs SNK didn’t arrive on the PS1 until 2002) and this memory requirement, Capcom vs SNK is by far a less compromised port than Marvel vs Capcom and even holds up pretty well compared to Street Fighter Alpha 3 (but being ported from a higher standard).
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Fear Effect Series

Release Date: February 24, 2000 (original), February 21, 2001 (sequel)

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Key Technical Features:

  • Very early example of cel-shading graphical technique.
  • Full-motion video used as a background technique
  • Smooth transitioning of character models between realtime and pre-rendered sequences.

The Resident Evil franchises was kicking into a high gear in the late 90s, but those that wanted something different in the survival horror genre were welcoming to fresh take that the team at Kronos Digital Entertainment delivered with Fear Effect.

Creepy and cinematic, Fear Effect pushes the limits of the Playstation’s power with its incredibly cool animation technology and cel shading style.  The original Fear Effect ended up being one of the very first cel shaded games to hit the market (but Jet Set Radio for the Dreamcast was shown off earlier and came out only a few months after Fear Effect).

For both Fear Effect games, Kronos also opted to work full motion video footage that streamed or looped in the background to give a fluid and realistic environment. This gave much of the impression of dynamic 3D-generated backgrounds without rendering resources used. Of course, this took up much more space on the CD-ROM, which explains why the adventure takes up four discs. There are also some syncing issues with the video backgrounds that pop up occasionally.

Kronos did, however, design the character models to smoothly transition between realtime and pre-rendered sequences. This execution gives Fear Effect a technical edge over some examples in the Final Fantasy games that utilized pre-rendered elements.
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Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Release Date: March 20, 1997

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Key Technical Features:

  • One of the very best examples of 2D games on the Playstation.
  • Used Multi-scrolling backgrounds and 3D techniques to create the illusion of shifting perspectives.

The Playstation strength was not in its 2D graphics. Instead, it was primarily built to show off its 3D capabilities. However, much like the Capcom fighters mentioned above, Castlevania Symphony of the Night made use of the Playstation hardware creatively to give the 2D powerhouse in the Saturn a run for its money.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night made the Playstation (or even the PS2’s backwards compatibility) cry with the heavy 2D work in order to provide a breathtaking experience and a game that is arguably one of the best 2D side-scrolling adventure games of all time.

Castlevania’s areas use some impressive graphical techniques, such as multi-scrolling backgrounds and 3D techniques in the backgrounds that create the illusion of shifting perspectives. This perspective trick is most evident in the Royal Chapel with the stained glass windows and large cross in the far background. As the player walks or jumps, the windows, the beams of light coming through them, the walkway between them, and the arching ceiling will transform their shapes to match the player’s location.

As noted in our Playstation hardware comparison against the Saturn and N64, Symphony of the Night could have been a killer Saturn game, but limited investment of resources on Konami’s part made a high-end Saturn port of Symphony of the Night a low priority. The PlayStation’s 2D mode displayed sprites as always front-facing polygons (so it could calculate positioning quickly). Konami simply didn’t deem it worth the investment to reprogram their fully 3D tile engine to the Saturn’s unique architecture. As a result, the Saturn struggles to display a 2D game, effectively rendered fully in 3D and thus plagued by slowdowns. It’s not really the Saturn hardware’s fault other than the difficulty of porting 2D work efficiently between systems. But it is a testament to the Playstation’s ability to do 2D.

When you combine these wonderful graphical effects with the game’s amazing soundtrack and solid control and gameplay, you are presented with a Castlevania game that is still the standard to beat for modern Castlevania episodes.
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Vagrant Story

Release Date: February 10, 2000

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Key Technical Features:

  • Impressive character models that expressed emotion including mouth movement.
  • Fully 3D rendered background instead of relying on pre-rendered
  • Had certain aspects of each character model given extra detail to give strong presentation without slowing down frame rates.
  • Experiments with changing depth-of-field/focus

With the deep bench of technical talent found at Square, it can be difficult to narrow down the list of technical masterpieces. Vagrant Story is generally overshadowed by Square’s other titles, but it is arguably one of the best and most beautiful titles on PlayStation and a wonderful example of artistic integrity.

Yasumi Matsuno (who previously directed the Final Fantasy Tactics project) led Square Product Development Division 4’s work on Vagrant Story and released it a few months after PD Division 3’s Threads of Fate (mentioned above) in early 2000. After working on the project for two years and also learning the ins-and-outs of the the Playstation hardware, the team ended finding a sweet spot for Vagrant Story as a polished product.

The graphics found in Vagrant Story are extremely detailed for the generation, the animations are smooth, and the character models move fluently and express emotion — something that most RPGs of the era needed text to convey. Vagrant Story even included mouth movement during speech. While it wasn’t the first Playstation game to pull off lip movement, it was a great addition to the overall package.

With a focus on full 3D rendering and high detail, the team needed to be conscious of keeping frame rates solid. To help remedy this challenge, the modeling team had to select an aspect of each character to focus their attention. Art director Minagawa mentioned that painstaking detail were given to each individual model, even to characters that only appear for a few seconds in the game. The same character models were used throughout the game to create a seamless transition between event cutscenes and actual gameplay.

Square also experimented with a lot of graphical techniques to add depth and life into Vagrant Story. They played with fake depth-of-field and changing focus in scenes. Many of these approaches were seen often until the PS2 era.

Matsuno and his team were hoping to push the Playstation even harder, but they made solid calls on trimming overly-ambitious attempts. While not a huge surprise, dealing with the Playstation’s memory was the team’s largest challenge, forcing them to adjust the game’s interface, texture mapping and polygon mesh in maps, as well as removing gaming elements such as AI-controlled support characters.
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Release Date: December 17, 1998

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Key Technical Features:

  • Free-roaming combat with complex, 3D environments and multi-level stages
  • Runs 640X480 resolution (with full texturing) at 60fps

Ehrgeiz was originally released as an arcade title developed by DreamFactory and was published by Namco in the arcade and Squaresoft for the PlayStation port. It also was directed and designed by Seiichi Ishii, the designer behind Virtua Fighter and Tekken. It was hyped early on as a “Final Fantasy Fighter” since you’d be able to battle in the ring with the likes of Cloud, Tifa, Yuffie, Vincent and Sephiroth.

Ehrgeiz was produced by DreamFactory after their work on Tobal and Tobal No. 2 (mentioned above). Like its predecessors, Ehrgeiz also runs at a stunning 640×480 @ 60fps, but the newer brawler is also impressive due to its use of full texturing and complex, 3D multi-level environments while keeping those frame rates solid. However, for Ehrgeiz, the team opted for a blockier aesthetic like that of Tekken. And while Ehrgeiz does have some impressive motion-capture utilization, Tobal No. 2 still has the advantage on the smoothness of the human movement.

The play style for Ehrgeiz evolved from the free-roaming combat of Tobal No. 2 but placed more emphasis on allowing character to more fully explore and exploit the environments. Among other things, this included the ability to pick up weapons, throw crates, attack from elevated position, and corner opponents in pieces of the scenery. This formula may sound familiar if you have spent time with Capcom’s Power Stone games on the Dreamcast.

Obviously, this more ambitious battle setup complicates the technical challenges on hardware as limited as the Playstation. DreamFactory definitely put on a good show, but some glitches here and there prevented the experience from being quite as polished as their work on the Tobal games.
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Release Date: November 20, 1997

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Key Technical Features:

  • Excellent example of a 2D shooter making use of 3D hardware.
  • Runs at 60 fps with minimal speed drops despite 20+ enemies on the screen.
  • Detailed crafts with moving parts and cool lighting effects.

Obviously, just about everything Square touched on the Playstation was quite a beauty — and it wasn’t only the case with RPGs. Square dove into the shmup arena by bringing us Einhander.

In a shmup, you ideally want to see as much detailed destruction on your screen as possible, without any slowdown. Einhander delivers on those dreams in full polygonal glory. (This shooter has polygons, but the environment is not fully 3D and the gameplay is still true to the 2D roots) Einhander, for the most part, flies by at a solid 60 frames per second, however there are some minor slowdown issues once things get hectic with 20+ enemies on the screen at once.

Even the smallest enemy fighter in Einhander is a carefully crafted polygon with moving parts, flickering lights, and plenty of style. The explosions are quite impressive and you will find that the larger enemies get stop apart piece by piece. The bosses are gigantic and their defeats are a sight to behold.

Einhander’s background scenery is simply gorgeous and the game is filled with countless levels of scrolling, complete with colored lighting and other impressive effects. Einhander also makes good use of color, shading, water reflections and transparencies of polygons. All this eye candy in a 2.5D environment causes one to re-think their definition of what a shooter should be.  The end result is one of the very best shmups in the Playstation library.

Considering the game’s 1997 Japan release, Einhander is and especially impressive technical feat. The team at Square admitted that most of the graphical techniques they showed off were learned during the development of Final Fantasy VII but the shmup formula let them focus on a narrower environment and turn up the dial on eye candy and frame rate.
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Honorable Mentions:

  • Resident Evil 3: Nemesis – The graphics are slightly improved over the second, and the CG movies are a little bit more polished. New features such as dodging, a 180-degree turn, the ability to blow up nearby objects, and mixing ammo are a welcoming addition to the series.
  • Dino Crisis 2 – This sibling of the Resident Evil series featured incredibly detailed pre-redned environments and impressive character models of characters and some massive dinosaurs. The Dino’s also features some impressive AI to keep you on your toes.
  • Terracon – This hidden gem was only released in Europe (Midway cancelled their plans to publish in North America) has nearly a Halo-like aesthetic if it was designed for the Playstation. It manages to run smoothly despite having large open areas with excellent draw distance. Terracon features a handful of graphic effects you won’t find commonly in this generation such as night-to-day transitions and in-game 3D facial animations. Terracon also shows off some of the best particle effects on the Playstation and can display multiple impressive technologies within a single scene.
  • Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation – Tomb Raider franchise raised standards early on the PS1, but had a hard time keeping pace with graphical innovation. But this final PS1 installment showed some real improvement due to a new engine. This time around, Lara actually sheds water droplets after emerging from water. The game’s impressive lighting effects are shown off by flames, flares, and dark, musty caverns.
  • Chrono Cross – Everything is finely detailed and the characters blend in extremely well with their environments. The particle effects used in Chrono Cross very well-done and similar to those in Soul Reaver. There is, however some slowdown during the more visually intensive spells in battle.
  • Final Fantasy IX – The backgrounds are not only rich and vibrant, but they are also are animated, which further increases the amount of visual detail. The in-game character models are slightly less detailed and have a lower polygon count than those found in Chrono Cross. This sacrifice, though, allows a four-member team, leading to significantly more complex battles without bogging down the system. Every single time you enter a new area in Final Fantasy IX, you’re presented with something new and beautifully rendered.
  • Mega Man Legends 2 – This sequel to Capcom’s rough first attempt to bring the Blue Bomber to 3D showed great refinement. The real-time graphics are smooth an sweet, creating a cute, interactive anime-styled world. And of course, laser beams, distortion ripples, huge explosions, and fabulous level designs show an impressive evolution of the series at the time. The smaller details such as snow drifts and roaming pigs continue to bring Legends 2 to life.
  • Looney Tunes: Sheep Raider – This hidden gem plays nearly like a goofy kids version of Metal Gear Solid but smoothly pulls off an impressive cartoon look. While the graphics do sometimes have a rough polygon look, it has an early cel shading style and very smooth and springy animation that feels true to the Looney Tunes source material.
  • Soul Blade / Soul Edge – The predecessor to the Soul Calibur series was another solid outing from Namco. It was the first 3D, weapons-based fighter of its kind and featured crisp graphics, smooth gameplay. The backgrounds are quite complex, but this comes at a price as Soul Blade only runs at 30 fps compared to Tekken 3’s 60 fps.
  • WWF SmackDown! 2: Know Your Role – THQ set the standard for a realistic wrestling games on the PS1 and it rivals those on the N64. The wrestler models are realistic in shape and motion, with excellent, lifelike animation. Squint during an intro, and you might be fooled into thinking you were watching an actual human being walk to the ring. The crowd is well animated and sports different signs depending on who is in the ring.
  • Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere – Namco showed off their technical prowess with the Ace Combat series and with the third iteration, the graphics took an incremental step forward with lush light sourcing, cleverly hidden horizon draw-in, and nice environmental effects. Due to the wide-open nature of the game, the graphical upgrade has less of an impact than that of watching Namco’s work on the Ridge Racer series mature, but it is still impressive for this era.
  • Colin McRae Rally 2.0 – Colin 2.0 is an enhanced title as opposed to a sequel. It fixed flicker and polygon seams while increasing the draw distance that is so important in a racer. McRae 2.0 kept the solid particle and lighting effects and you can still enjoy the dust, grass, mud, and leaves that kick up. Rain effects are solid and don’t hamper the game’s steady frame rate.
  • Speed Punks / Speed Freaks – While it isn’t as well-rounded of a racing game, Speed Punks rivals the graphical effects and frame rates (especially in 4 player mode) of the best of the PS1 and N64 racers. Visually the game has an excellent graphics engine, free of any pop-up and slowdown. The level designs are simply built for speed (but not as large as some other racers). In fact, Speed Punks is one of the few games that really lives up to it’s namesake, offering a sense of speed you just won’t find in any other kart racing game.
  • Crash Team Racing – The first solid cart racer to give Mario Kart a run for its money from a marketing perspective, the graphics weren’t overly complex, but had a great cartoon feel with a creative use of textures, colors, and fun animations. The environments had a respectable scope and Naughty Dog ensured that it ran smoothly to give a solid sense of speed.
  • Alone in the Dark the New Nightmare – While having some dark and gloomy atmosphere, the game shows some innovation with its flashlight’s aesthetic effect. As the game’s environments are prerendered 2D paintings, their being lit in real-time seems rather confounding. Darkworks used a technique called “meshing” to render the environments. Meshing entails rendering two versions of each environment–one lit and one unlit. When a character shines the flashlight on any particular part of the environment, the lit version of that fraction is displayed. It’s very neat to behold, and the effect is quite impressive–you’d swear it was all done in real-time. The animation is spot on, with some lovely lighting effects and tremendous detail given the ailing PSOne hardware. The colour is surprisingly rich too, unlike other survival/horror games where an absence of life usually means an absence of detail.

Additional Reading:

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T says:

I remember soul Reaver, used to play that game when I was a kid ! Was thinking about saving up for a old fashioned console what do you think ?

Ryuma says:

You mention a thread about Terracon, but I don’t see one? Can anyone help me out?
Also, great article. It’s good to see Terracon being mentioned.

racketboy says:

I don’t know what happened to the link and now I can’t find it in my notes. I’ve even been trying to find it again via Google. Sorry. I’ll post again if I find it…

Leo says:

Lovely article and sound choices, thank you. LoK:SR quite correctly at the top. I remember playing it as a teen and quickly realising it was special. The team clearly were passionate about what they were creating, with such wildly ambitious goals.

Regarding Wipeout 3, at least the SE European version has another ace up its sleeve: it’s one of only about two PS1 games to feature simultaneous spilt-screen and link capability for four players. That was a lot of fun!

One game not mentioned, and I’m not surprised, is Foresaken. I don’t know the technicalities but its graphics engine is hi-res, smooth, very detailed, has amazing lighting and some breathtaking animation. Since the soundtrack is simple CD Audio, it has done something very smart to fit each level completely into RAM. And the enemy AI is one of a kind for the PS1, with dodging and strafing strategies.

Thanks again for the great read. There are some typos if you have time to re-read your article.

racketboy says:

Those are great tips — thanks so much!
I’ve got some other corrections to make, but I’m always open for typo corrections — contact email works too on the footer of the page 🙂

Leo says:

You’re welcome!

Nebs says:

Great article, lots of games that I knew only by name but haven’t actually played. Could have benefited from proofreading, though. Not faulting the writer, in such a long article you get blind to your mistakes, but a fresh pair of eyes before publishing would have made wonders.

Also, this bit about Alien Resurrection:

“Even with all the graphical goodness, the frame rates stay rock solid throughout.”

is unfortunately plain wrong. The framerate varies wildly throughout the game, and in the most demanding scenes drops down to 15fps or lower. A shame, because the game really is amazing.

racketboy says:

Thanks for the info! I’ve taken out the reference to the frame rate to simplify things.

Glowsquid says:

“Alien Resurrection was the first console FPS to really use a twin-analogue stick control model that had moving and aiming assigned to different sticks on the Dualshock (players also have the option of using the Playstation mouse). ”

Always hate to “Well actually”, but Uprising-X has it beat by nearly two years. Quoteth Gamespot’s review of that game:

“The control in Uprising X is a little tough to get used to, especially when you’re using the Dual Shock controller. One stick moves the Wraith, and the other controls where you’re looking. “

racketboy says:

Good to know! I’ve reflected that in a revision to the text.
Thanks a bunch!

Leo says:

You know, I’ve thought about it and decided Driver 2 doesn’t belong here! The reason: it didn’t push the limits at all (Driver 1 had already done that), it actually broke them. Allow me to explain.

Driver 1 innovated, with its free-roaming and data streaming. It was great. The sequel, by being designed for PC but pushed to the PS1, tried to do more (curved roads and getting out the car) but in the process it became a horrific glitch-filled slow-down-filled mess.

The other games on this list succeeded with their efforts and innovations. D2 shows what results when you try to do more than your system has grunt and memory for. It was not fun to play. It’s one thing to squeeze the last drops of juice out of the PS1 to do something smart; it’s another to just force the machine to do more than it can reasonably cope with.

racketboy says:

I could totally see that! I actually considered going that route with that piece. When I work on a revision, maybe I’ll work in that dynamic. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Leo Ryder says:

🙂 You are the dude.

artphotodude says:

I think there are 5-games that should have made this list:


1. “Bloody Roar II” is STUNNING. 640×480, paralleling 3D backgrounds and quick load-times. Honestly looks like a Dreamcast game.

2. “Bushido Blade”
The game that all realistic fighting games owe their lives to. Released a little after Tekken 2 and it’s low-rez wallpaper backgrounds, BB creates a continuously-loading world (ala Shadow of the Colossus) where you are challenged and chased by foes as your character attempts to escape the secret assassin order. The characters have among the highest polygon-counts of any game at the time (on par with Soul Blade), but exist in a massive world where the weather changes, you fight in night and day environments, and can actually damage objects like bamboo trees – that can be cut down. You character takes real-time damage and acquires both bandages and dirt/mud during the fights. And if all this wasn’t enough, you can fight in FPS mode against a second human player via link-cable (even with 1 Disc! – It will wait for both sides to load – CRAZINESS).

3. “Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation”: While not the best TR game on PSX, it is the one that shouldn’t exist. Also 640×480 and 24-bit color. Fully-skinned characters and detail very comparable to the PC version.

and for 2D (that PSX mostly sucked at):

4. “Guilty Gear” This literally holds up in 2018. While it doesn’t have ‘bandwidth’ of action that say XMen vs. Street Fighter does on Saturn, it uses 3D tricks like Castlevania S.O.T.N. to make a 2.5D fighting game that features crazy visual spectacle, 60fps action. It’s no wonder Arc System Works have gone on to become the juggernaut they did.

5. “Metal Slug X” – HOW DOES THIS GAME EXIST??!?!? The answer is while it does cheat with 3D to compensate for fewer frames of 2D glory, it doesn’t skimp on the color pallet or look choppy the way Darkstalkers 3 on PSX did to fit on Sony’s console. This is quite possibly the most awesome 2D game on the PSX.

Leo Ryder says:

artphotofude, thanks I will have to take a look at those, great info!

I think we all love the ‘pushed the limits’ idea because it’s a bit like magic.

Artphotodude says:

I think you will like them! I did notice after posting the OP lists Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation in honorable mentions. So kudos on that. The others are ones you don’t see a lot because their getting pretty rare and expensive.

racketboy says:

Agreed! Thanks for the recommendations, artphotodude!

Ayamy says:

Good list, but where is Silent Bomber and Vanark those two really pushed the limits towards the end of the life cycle of the ps1, also R-type Delta

Doppo says:

Nice write up, there are lots of lovely games mentioned!

I will say however, that Fear Effect isn’t doing anything technical with its Cel shaded look, its an unlit material that is painted to look Cel Shaded. It doesn’t actually react to lighting in any special way.

From my knowledge no ps1 game does Cel Shading “properly”, its all just faked in the texture. So its not really pushing the PS1, in fact, because the material doesn’t react to lighting (as its unlit) its actually better on performance.

Still looks cool though! 😀

Wipeout 3 can’t have this resolution 720×480, it’s impossible. Playstation 1 can’t handle this resolution. Sega Saturn for example can handle it. If you run the game in emulators with resolution info you can see that actually run at 512×256 at 16bit. It is great achievement in the saga for PS1. Highest resolution, at 30FPS and all Gouraud quads whit lighting. Congratulation for the article! Thanks for sharing retro-knowlodge! Greeting! 🙂

Historia Konsol says:

Can you explain me how is it possible that Tekken 3 runs at 364x512i in PAL (or 364x480i in NTSC – it doesn’t matter) AND at 50 fps (60 fps in NTSC) at the same time?
When video is interlaced every single frame consists of two fields to being displayed on analog CRT tv screen – odd and even. And every single field needs exactly 1Hz (one refresh of a tv screen). So If a game runs at 50 or 60 fps WITH intrlaced resolution it needs 100Hz or 120Hz tv for even being able to be displayed as 1 fps needs exactly 2Hz. And 99% of tv set back than (late 90’s, early 00) has only 50Hz (PAL) or 60Hz (NTSC).

You need review the basic concepts of the interlaced. Not are double of frames it is half. 1 first frame only render odd lines and immediately next render even lines. For a 30fps image, 15fps are even and other 15fps odd alternatively. For a 60fps 30fps for field.

Historia Konsol says:

Thanks for your answer. Is it possible for you to explain me this topic more detailed? I would like to understand this interlaced topic more.

You need know that the analogic tv or the new digital encoders. For the final image to TV-crt in time or for more new tv. These tv encoders will match the objetive tv system value from the input value. For example: For a real 30fps, 15fps for field it will converted to 30fps, it repeat the frames for 2x in this example for ntcs system. The same formula for a pal but the objective it this will be 50fps. For all the rest you take a look to this article in wikipedia:

artphotodude says:

You have this partially right. each field is half of the frame alternating separated by a vertical sync pulse going one direction and then another vertical sync pulse returning back the other direction. The duration of the frame is 1/50th or 1/60th second, but it is split (shared) so in a sense it is seems like double the frame frequency, but it “Isn’t done yet” so it would be like looking at a house without siding or paint. The time it takes to paint/scan the frame is 1/50th or 1/60th.
240p (like most games on PSX, Saturn or older), simply leaves one of those chunks of the signal blank – only painting one field. The 2nd (color) image on this page shows it clearly for PAL, although NTSC is essentially the same.

Historia Konsol says:

So when it comes to 516i (480i in NTSC) games of fifth video game generation like Tekken 3 – does it mean console itslef produces whole frame every 1/50th second (PAL) but interlaced tv-set displays only half of this frame at one 1/50th second? For the first 1/50th second it will be only odd lines, for the second it will be even lines, for the thrid it will be odd lines and so on?

artphotodude says:

You almost have it. The 1st field is painted in the first half of the frame and the 2nd is painted in the 2nd half. BUT if you have 240p (single field) it is still the same length of time to refresh because the frame still takes just as long to complete, it just skips the 2nd field. One key element of this discussion that is often missing is Horizontal refresh rate. In fact this is often the one that you really see when panning in a well-made (or not) first person shooter.

The actual VERTICAL refresh rate of NTSC, as an example, is actually 29.97 per second (not 30 or 60) but the HORIZONTAL is over 15KHz, so if your game is rendering at 30, 60 or whatever – panning up results in the same 29.97 p/s line-crawl, but in say Powerslave for PSX that renders 60 FPS, you will have less than half of the horizontal “judder” as you strafe and turn, as you would playing say Duke Nukem 3D on the same system that only runs at 24-30fps.

In a progressive scan picture Horizontal is 30K or more, but the virtical can actually sync (V-Sync or G-Sync) with your output device and match it. No matter how fast your FPS in interlaced video, your vertical refresh rate is locked and is a constant source of picture defect. This is often why 240p images look more solid (if less dense) than 480i/512i because there is no time variable between raster lines (which is a 1/50th or 1/60th offset), and this offset then exaggerates the difference between the image’s refresh rate and TV’s native refresh rate.

Historia Konsol says:

So further still, what is the techincal difference in displaying 512i @50fps and 512i @25fps? How do fields work than?

artphotodude says:

I know this is confusing. The vertical component of the interlaced frame, takes time to display (in the case of PAL 1/25 of a second) and then simply repeats that process over and over again, whereas the progressive frame does not and can be repeated as fast as the monitor and graphics card allow. So in the vertical dimension, the framerate cannot ever be faster than the the refresh rate (basically throws vertical time-depth beyond 25 away). But in the horizontal dimension, the frame-rate can match most any current speed (since it’s speed is over 15 thousand Hz in that dimension.

Think of it like running a business. If you produce more units to sell each hour (Horizontal) you make more money (see more speed), but when you go to pay your taxes (Vertical), it takes as long as the IRS pleases to send your refund and your speed doesn’t matter (lost/wasted speed).

Historia Konsol says:

I really do appreciate your answers and I am greatful for your time you’ve spent so far to explain me how does it works but would it be possible for you to answer my last question more straight forward? I believe it will help to understand this more clearly.

artphotodude says:

I cant think of any other way to explain this, beyond the last two replies, Don’t feel bad this confuses more than a few “experts”. I’v been working on TVs since the Mid 80’s and it is a lot easier to visualize what’s happening on an oscilloscope.
The thing to keep in mind is that in interlaced video, the lines themselves are rendered, rather slowly (vertically), by the TV, and that slowness, blocks faster frame-rates in the Y dimension – so things moving vertically in the frame will never appear smooth regardless of how fast the input frame-rate is.
But since the horizontal (X dimension) scans over 15 thousand times a second, frame-rates faster than discernible vertically, can be discerned in horizontal motion, with less jumping along (called judder).

Historia Konsol says:

I asked this question about interlaced video cause I saw a video where freezed frame displayed in PAL standard and this still image clearly consisted of two separate fields which, in turn, came from two differnet native frames. Two fields clearly didn’t fit each other, one (probably odd lines) came from ‘previous’ frame, and the other (probably even lines) came from ‘next’ frame.
That’s why the simplest way to imagine how interlaced signal works is that within single frame it only displays one field of lines (odd) and that’s all. Next, within second frame it displays a field of even lines. Since first set of lines, I mean first field, is still on the screen it “meets” the second set of lines from the next frame. That’s why every frame in interlaced video consist of two fields which always come from two different native frames generated by console.

Dean Smith says:

nice list. im actually curious about a game not on the list, ‘incredible crisis’ i know its just a family arcade mini game thing, but one thing i noticed was the water textures are practically next gen, and was wondering if anyone could tell me the name of the technique used in that games water to make it look so good when the water is spilling out the boat as it capsizes on a level fail. its information for a text pop up in a lets play of the game im editing, to tell the viewers what the technique used is called as im not up on stuff like that.

Dogbert says:

I know this article is “old”, but the amount of research/direct quotes the writer put in is incredible!
Good job!

racketboy says:

Thank you! I appreciate that quite a bit!
It was indeed one of the larger research projects on this site. It was fun to work on, but a lot of notes to keep straight and consolidate into something readable 🙂

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