Editorial: Pixel Fantasy 76800

The original PlayStation ushered in an era of epic console RPGs, allowing for expansive multi-disc stories with high-resolution soundtracks and full motion video cutscenes. Outside of cinematics, the actual gameplay was less graphically impressive in most cases, and there are still those who dislike the PlayStation era for this reason. But some of the most timeless games ever devised were released for the original PlayStation, and they are certainly worth a second, though admittedly rather blocky, look. But why do they look so poor on modern TVs, and how is it possible that earlier SNES games often look better in comparison?

Doing more at 256x224 than any modern game could ever hope to match.
Chrono Trigger uses its pixels wisely.

Unquestionably, the Super Nintendo offers some of the finest low-resolution game designs, and in understanding the longevity of such games from a graphical standpoint (many of which look fantastic even on high-definition televisions) we need to consider more than art direction. For its part the PS1 hardware was certainly capable of an even higher degree of 2D design quality than the 16-bit systems preceding it, but the original PlayStation’s 3D graphics engine was (unfortunately) the driving force behind most of the console’s game development. Some games eschewed pure 3D for a hybrid design based on the sprites of the previous generation, with Final Fantasy Tactics a great example of this. However, games such as Final Fantasy IX may never look as good as they could have, given the way production had shifted in the PlayStation era. This is a somewhat complex subject, but it essentially boils down to the native resolution of the games in question, and the relationship between resolution and graphic design. It is a testament to the brilliant artists behind such SNES games as Chrono Trigger and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past that the hardware involved did not impede the realization of what remain beautiful and immersive games – and it is remarkable that these games had to be designed to fit within a minuscule 256×224 resolution. This is also the reason they look so good today. Confused? Allow me to explain.

Pixel art is an incredibly economical way to design image assets for a game that still offers sharp, recognizable visuals. Sprites, which are the movable pixel art images used for character models in these games, help transform what would otherwise be a static image into the living, breathing world of classic 2D games. A look at the sprites used in Zelda: LttP (available here) demonstrates the effectiveness of this technique, and the sharpness of these designs – though very low in total pixel count – is obvious on any display type. With such sharp and intentionally blocky designs, it is easier to understand why SNES-era games can scale up to the HD resolutions of modern TVs without losing much quality in the process. The pixels on a 65-inch LCD screen may be larger, but they were designed from the start to convey the artist’s intent with a minimal resolution (the effect is similar to that of impressionist artwork). This actually explains why PlayStation titles such as Final Fantasy IX look so poor at modern resolutions.

A lovely 800x512 image asset that will never make it back into the game.
Final Fantasy IX deserves to look this good.

When the art assets for Final Fantasy IX were designed, they were not made at a low resolution. Characters were no longer pixel art sprites, as polygonal models had to be constructed, skinned with image files called “textures”. Conversely, the intricate game environments were realized using static, though highly detailed, images, made on computers at very high resolution. This is the same technique used in Final Fantasy VII, where most of the environments were detailed (static) images on which the rendered characters moved about. While the difference between the character models and backgrounds in FF VII is rather stark (other than within battles, where they blend nicely thanks to alternative character models), in FF IX they tend to blend together very well throughout the entire game, due to the higher-resolution character models which are on par with the in-battle FF VII designs. This perceivable difference in resolution from character modeling has never been more apparent than in the recent Steam release of FF IX, which combined the original 320×240 backgrounds with 3D character models that are being rendered at a much higher resolution. The result, while not surprising to anyone who has used a PlayStation emulator render this game at a higher resolution, is still jarring. The character models look like they belong in a PlayStation 2 game, while backgrounds are still blurry on modern screens due to their unfortunate resolution limitation. I would encourage our readers to check out some of the original background images from Final Fantasy IX, and their beauty makes it all the more distressing that Square-Enix may not possess all of the original assets, making a true HD remake impossible without re-creating the missing backgrounds.

And so it is that the problem with FF IX, and PlayStation games in general, on modern TVs is one of resolution. Regardless of how intricate and beautiful the assets looked during the production of these games, downsampling them to the required resolution of just 320×240 created what now appears (when played using a PlayStation 3 on an HDTV) as either blocky and pixelated with no visual filters, or blurry and smeared when rendered with smoothing effect. Using a PlayStation 2 to play these classic games can actually enhance them somewhat compared to PS3 playback, due in part to the job the HDTV’s built-in scaling engine can do in mitigating the pixelation that is almost unbearable on a large HDTV. Regardless, it is inevitable that a high-res image will lose a significant amount of fidelity when a large percent of the original pixels are removed, and SNES games have an advantage in this regard, as their artwork was built from the ground up for the lower resolution of the console. Native resolution, which is simply pixel-for-pixel sizing for a given display, will always look sharper that “scaling”, which is achieved by either trashing pixels from the original frame (down-sampling), or doubling/tripling/etc. pixels to fill the screen (up-sampling). Those familiar with emulation programs have probably tried out some of the various filters designed to make older games look better on modern displays, but for purists there is no substitute for a pixel-perfect recreation of the games – which incidentally will always look sharper than the alternatives.

Vivi is looking great, but he stands out like a sore thumb - even more than usual.
Steam’s version of FF IX is a visual mess.

It has been said that genius needs limitation to thrive, and I agree completely. When faced with endless choice it is difficult to know where to begin, and modern game designers have fewer limitations than at in any point in video game history. For systems like the SNES, the technical limitations provided necessary boundaries, and we can now appreciate how the artists behind classics like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Last used the digital canvas to the fullest extent possible. There are many styles of art, and most modern games try for hyper-realism with the powerful graphics processing and 3D game engines prevalent in modern console development. For now, a handheld system is the perfect home for original PlayStation games and their 76,800 pixels, and most titles look great on a PlayStation Vita, giving them a new home for those who would rather not stretch that image over the 2,073,600 pixel canvas of an HDTV display.

18 comments

  1. Full credit for FFIX on PC looking absolutely stunning but I’m still going to stick to the original PS1 version on Vita.

  2. The best part of the PC version is the modding community can fill the gaps that the developers did not. I can play a much better version of FF8 now thanks to the mods that made it look less like a blurry mess and more like a game that was released in the last ten years.

    If you want to talk about modern pixels though you should really check out I am Setsuna’s Dev room- it’s quite the sight. They take a town and several of the NPCs and monsters and turn them into really cute pixel art- including a shrimp.

  3. @Cari: I love I Am Setsuna, but it would have been so much happier in classic JRPG-style pixel art.

  4. Also, all this thread has done is make me realise how much I really do love FFIX and how I am sad that we already did a site-wide playthrough (our very first) back in the Summer of 2009.

  5. @Lusipurr where do you stand on Final Fantasy 4 The Complete Collection? It’s some pretty pixel art and a decent update on the old girl. You could do a play through of that.

  6. @Cari: I’ve played through the complete collection several times, most recently as part of our site-wide FF4 playthrough just a few months ago in July. So we’ve already done that–very, very recently, in fact.

  7. Aw darn and I missed it? Well then… Did I also miss a I am Setsuna play through on stream?

  8. @Lusipurr Have you found all the weapons referencing Chrono Trigger? Such as “Lucca’s ‘rod'”.

  9. @Cari: I have only played a few hours of Setsuna, unfortunately. Perhaps over holidays!

  10. @Lusipurr Sorry about that- didn’t mean to spoil the surprise- but can you guess the other weapons? Hmm? I am pretty sure it’s just a reference to it’s inspiration though.

  11. The PS1 was actually capable of producing absolutely stunning 2D pixel art graphics – just look at the Suikoden games, the Lunar games, the Arc the Lad games, Alundra etc. If you want to bemoan the quality of the majority of PS1 graphics then one must blame both Sony for heavily discouraging 2D along with Western consumers for making this a winning tactic.

    Really though, the visual quality looked amazing at the time on our blurry SD tellys – the results only begin to look wretched once high definition LCD screens enter the equation.

    I wish there was a way to make PS1 games look the way I remember them.

  12. @Cari: People who believe in spoilers are walking absurdities. You haven’t ‘spoiled’ anything for me–now I know that they are out there and I’ll be on the lookout and less likely to miss them.

    @SiliconNooB If you want to bemoan the quality of the majority of PS1 graphics then one must blame both Sony for heavily discouraging 2D along with Western consumers for making this a winning tactic.
    EXACTLY. Symphony of the Night proves that pixel art reached its peak on the PS1, but gamers were too obsessed with the AWFUL-looking 3D games of the time. Woe and betide.

  13. @SiliconNooB You are right- Symphony of the Night is evidence of how well it could pull off 2D graphics, while the Saturn had stronger 2D hardware I don’t think there was any reason that a SKILLED artist like the people that made SOTN can make anything look beautiful. I would rather pretty 2D sprites than the 3D messes that were in FF7 and FF8. They seemed to have finally figured it out by FF9 but as shown by the Steam Port it seems they really didn’t quite understand that you can’t just fix the sprites if the pre-rendered backgrounds look like that.

    @Lusipurr That’s good then. Some people tend to get angry about Spoilers which to me is silly, at worst you should be disappointed but never angry. All of the weapons are sadly hidden behind those locked chests so don’t worry about looking for them until after you get the item needed to unlock them. (Fortunately I don’t think there is any method to upgrade the chests like in CT.)

  14. SotN might be one of the most beautiful games ever made. Also, I think the only way PS1 games can look their best is on a CRT, which masks the imperfections a lot. Unfortunately, I feel like a total hipster playing games on my old tube TV – but at least I’m not pretending the TurboGrafx 16 is the greatest console ever made, which has to be the biggest hipster move of them all (I’m talking to you, Josh Topolsky).

  15. Yr not a true VG hipster ’til you espouse the virtues of Tiger R-Zone, yr favorite show as a kid was VR Troopers (I mean you just tell people stuff like that), and Nintendo Teenage Robots is your favorite music but next month you call them “chip-tune sell-outs.” If you’re using a tube TV with something it was intended to go with, there is too serious a deficit of artificial irony to merit hipsterism, despite it being older than 20 years.

Comments are closed.