Any game can look good or bad, but older games tend to receive the most criticism thanks to outdated engines. Many games that were once considered visually lifelike now resemble reality in no way. However, some games avoid outdated graphics through the perfect combination of realism, variety, and imagination. Other games abandon realism altogether, using animation to set games aside from the real world.
While many companies continuously enhance game engines and graphics in order to surpass competitors, other companies adopt older aesthetics. Some of the best-looking games in the world stem from the 20th century, inspiring indie games to use similar styles. Series like Mega Man and Sonic the Hedgehog are making games that imitate prequels from the late 80s and early 90s. Certain graphics will thrive in any time period, allowing creators to choose from a variety of styles and engines when producing video games.
To honor the games that inspired the visuals of 21st century games, this article lists older games that greatly influenced the gaming world. The games on this list all came out between 1986 and 2000. Most come from the 90s, a significant era in gaming history thanks to new engines and innovative companies that advanced 3-D game design. Not every game fully utilizes 3-D graphics, resulting in some beautiful 2-D games, some unappealing 2-D entries, and a few hideous hybrids that fail to balance 2-D sprites with 3-D models. Whether they look good or not, these games shaped the games of today’s market. Here’s 8 older games that look great today and 7 that are extremely outdated.
15 Does: Super Mario 64
Super Mario 64 revolutionized 3-D gaming through brilliant mechanics and beautiful worlds. By jumping into paintings in Peach’s Castle, you teleport into a variety of settings ranging from haunted mansions to mountains of ice. With an excellent camera that you can control in both third-person and first-person point of view, players can’t help but marvel at the colorful levels around them.
Striving more for cartoony fun than realistic graphics, Super Mario 64 barely feels outdated. Bowser looks quirky rather than intimidating, but the other enemies of the game look great. Mario himself strengthens the game through his comforting colors and smooth movements, making him look great like the levels around him.
Produced in 1996, Super Mario 64 inspired countless 3-D platformers yet continues to be one of the best thanks to its imaginative missions and worlds.
14 Doesn't: GoldenEye 007 (1997)
Despite being an excellent shooter, the original GoldenEye 007 for Nintendo 64 looks awful. Many levels exhibit an unappealing gray; while color should theoretically negate the bland levels, the colorful levels look even worse. The forest has an admittedly nice aesthetic, but the jungle looks disgusting thanks to a dark-green fog. The creators tried to establish an exotic atmosphere, but the jungle resembles a poisoned swamp more than a tropical landscape.
Shooting enemies may be fun in GoldenEye 007, but you should avoid looking at them at all costs. The faces of enemies and allies alike are terrible attempts at pasting real faces onto 3-D models. Pierce Brosnan’s and Sean Bean’s motionless faces will unnerve any player who stares at them too long.
13 Does: Doom (1993)
The original Doom, made by id Software in 1993, bears the same style as action-adventure and fighting arcade games—which is why the game continues to look great today. Doom perfected its arcade-like visuals with pixelated graphics, 2-D sprites, and repetitive animations for attacks and deaths. Demons and possessed humans stand in the way of players, contributing a red aesthetic through both their skin and blood as you shoot your way to victory.
By incorporating bizarre enemies and settings without trying to draw realistic humans, Doom still look amazing today. The 2-D fireballs and monsters might throw off some players’ depth perception. Apart from some problems with 2-D sprites, however, gameplay flows well thanks to Doom’s great graphics and animations.
12 Doesn't: Daikatana
Whereas Doom remains a tremendous game, Daikatana—a game released in 2000 by Ion Storm, a company with half of the creative talent behind Doom—is recognized as one of the worst games in history. Terrible AI, poor story, and an outdated engine made Daikatana a commercial failure at its time of release and its reception hasn’t improved.
Daikatana’s levels look nice, but the enemies and characters are visually and functionally flawed. Many enemies—particularly skeletons and small creatures—are difficult to see. Characters move their heads instead of their mouths whenever they speak, making them resemble bobbleheads more than people. When you combine their strange movements with their terrible voice acting, the characters of Daikatana ruin their game in all aspects.
11 Does: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Soon after 3-D shooters and platformers had become popular, Ocarina of Time revolutionized the genre of 3-D live-action adventure games in 1998. The game’s title screen boasts its vast world and beautiful graphics, following Link on horseback as he roams Hyrule Field.
While some areas of Ocarina of Time are visually bland, most of the game looks great thanks to its numerous settings. The adventure starts in a gorgeous, vibrant forest and proceeds to medieval towns, volcanoes, and water-filled caves. Some areas will feel unoriginal to fans of previous Zelda games, but Ocarina of Time transforms Zelda into three-dimensional beauty instead of creating entirely new areas.
The interiors of some buildings are weirdly two-dimensional, but the majority of the game embraces 3-D graphics—unlike the first 3-D Final Fantasy game, Final Fantasy VII.
10 Doesn't: Final Fantasy VII
Released a year before Ocarina of Time in 1997, Final Fantasy VII provides a great adventure but fails to fully integrate 3-D graphics. Many rooms are hand-drawn: the rooms are two-dimensional drawings designed to look three-dimensional. The characters, on the other hand, are 3-D models. With contrasting designs, both characters and their levels look extremely unnatural. The 3-D models stand out like tacks stabbed into a painting.
The characters in Final Fantasy VII fortunately look good, although Cloud’s straw-thin arms are hard to get used to. Areas made with 3-D models are great, too—if the game had expanded to solely using 3-D models, it could have been a fantastic, ageless game. Because of its 2-D maps, Final Fantasy VII visually suffers compared to other 3-D games released at the time.
9 Does: The Legend of Zelda
Many older games are nauseating due to pixelated graphics and low frame rates. The Legend of Zelda, released in 1986, avoided this problem by building levels with segregated, rectangular rooms. The game loads one room at a time with a fixed, top-down camera, allowing the game to thrive even today.
The game’s world also looks amazing. Dungeons are visually monotonous and uninteresting, but the overworld is gorgeous. The numerous locations influenced the rest of the series, causing almost every Zelda game to include barren mountains, lush forests, and rivers infested with monsters.
While Ganon and a couple other bosses uncomfortably resemble real animals, the other enemies of the game look great and visually contribute to the game’s epic, fantastical setting.
8 Doesn't: Final Fantasy
The original Final Fantasy contrasts the first Zelda game in multiple ways; in terms of visuals, Zelda far surpasses Final Fantasy. With monotonous terrains and a camera that moves with the player, Final Fantasy quickly becomes nauseating. The game lacks creative settings, as battles and buildings’ interiors are set in a black screen, preventing many players from fully immersing in the game’s world.
Final Fantasy further disrupts immersion through odd proportions. Your characters are as large as the trees around them, making trees look like bushes while buildings are too small for characters to logically enter.
Fortunately, characters look great—particularly the playable characters. The cutscenes and story are great in the 1987 Final Fantasy game—once you start moving, however, you’ll lose interest thanks to the world’s visual design.
7 Does: Final Fantasy V
Final Fantasy V finally abandons the strange proportions of its predecessors for more realistic environments and they look tremendous! The opening scene with Bartz is absolutely amazing: Bartz and his Chocobo sit around a fire surrounded by massive trees. Roots and leaves curve in multiple directions, making the tallest branches almost pop out of the screen as they reach upwards. The 1992 game provided beauty, realistic proportions, and three-dimensional depth that the series previously lacked, expanding the possibilities of 2-D role-playing games even as 3-D games were becoming increasingly popular.
Like the prequels, Final Fantasy V possesses several repetitive, blocky maps, but the blocks are more intricate through curves and less pronounced lines. The new style greatly benefits the game, making areas look better while simultaneously preventing players from becoming dizzy anytime they move their character.
6 Doesn't: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
While the first Zelda game avoided nausea through a fixed camera and varied aesthetics, Zelda II will sicken anyone who dares to play it. Every dungeon in the game looks almost exactly the same apart from changes in color: dark bricks make up the background while lighter bricks constitute the foreground. Whenever Link moves, the bricks shake like a bad optical illusion. Movement prevents players from focusing on anything onscreen, making combat difficult in a combat-oriented game.
Link’s appearance also worsens between the 1986 Legend of Zelda and the 1987 Zelda II. Link resembles an elf in his first game, but transforms into an oddly proportioned human with long ears and terrible fashion. If the awful gameplay doesn’t drive you away from this game, the aesthetics definitely will.
5 Does: Banjo-Kazooie
Inspired by Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie—released in 1998—copied many mechanics from Mario while adding its own twists. A variety of weapons and abilities make Banjo and Kazooie an entertaining, powerful duo. You’ll love controlling them as you move through ten gorgeous worlds. These levels bring wonderful personality to the game; the music, visuals, and puzzles follow a theme for each respective level. Every world is perfectly sized, preventing players from becoming bored as they explore a winter wonderland, a beach with buried treasure, a massive tree that changes with each season, and more. Kazooie and Banjo are animated really well, making the characters epic and perfectly quirky. There’s a lot to love about Banjo-Kazooie, including graphics that continue to look great 19 years after release.
4 Doesn't: Banjo-Tooie
Usually sequels look better than their prequels, but Banjo-Kazooie surpasses Banjo-Tooie by a long shot. The games’ graphics may be technically equivalent, but the visuals in Banjo-Tooie look far worse thanks to poor level design. While Banjo-Kazooie fills its small levels with structures, colors, and varied terrain, its sequel possesses wide plains, rolling hills, and empty piles of stone. Large levels and little content make Banjo-Tooie feel empty, bland, and unimaginative. The open areas highlight the game’s pixelated terrains. Expansive maps and few enemies force players to spend most of their time running through levels that are uninteresting to look at.
Released at the end of the N64’s heyday in 2000, Banjo-Tooie had large ambitions that satisfied players at the time but harmed the game in the long run.
3 Does: Chrono Trigger
Set in a fantastical world where players travel through time, Chrono Trigger exhibits multiple designs that all look fantastic. The 1995 game is filled with great colors and epic settings. Certain areas can be revisited in different eras, allowing players to watch as towns and castles grow in size and style. Visuals perfectly support the game’s story and universe, creating one of the most immersive role-playing experiences in the gaming world.
The protagonist’s wild hair and outfit—as well as his robotic run—are the only exceptions to the game’s excellent visuals. Your team members, on the other hand, look amazing; their animations for running, walking, laughing, and dancing work well and match each character’s distinct personality. With colorful characters and settings, Chrono Trigger is beautiful throughout its epic journey.
2 Doesn't: Tomb Raider (1996)
The first Tomb Raider game fully embraced 3-D models and dazzled its 1996 audience. When played today, the game highlights the limited engines of 1996 and the flaws of realistic graphics. Lara Croft runs with slow, unnatural steps as 3-D walls shift around her. Even the rare 2-D sprites in the game look terrible: the surface of flowing water moves across the screen like desynchronized Tetris blocks.
The characters of the game look similarly bad. With faces that seemed realistic at the time but quickly became outdated, every human in the game will make you feel uncomfortable. If you’re looking for a Tomb Raider game with good graphics, you should play the modern games in the series—although those will probably look equally bad 20 years from now.
1 Does: Pokémon Red, Green, and Blue
The first Pokémon games, released in 1996, became instantly popular thanks to their imaginative world and creatures. Rather than using complicated animations, Nintendo made the bold, genius decision to draw characters and Pokémon only once for battles. The result is simple yet addicting gameplay. Singular drawings allow players to focus more on combat than graphics. The drawings look great and boast the game’s imagination, presenting 150 Pokémon that players can see and imagine interacting with.
The games’ overworld also looks amazing, using various settings to prepare players for particular types of Pokémon. Though simple, the visuals of the early Pokémon games are extremely effective and satisfying. Whether you’re playing with a Game Boy, a Game Boy Color, or a modern console, Pokémon Red, Green, and Blue will suck you into a beautiful world that continues to thrill gamers of all ages.