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Are "outdated" graphics necessarily "bad"?
Without touching the old-school/new-school debate, I think that this is an issue that needs to be examined on its own. Some of the graphics that are now considered poor actually have something good going for them; and rather than chalking it up as an automatic point to either prove the superiority of new games or to be kindly forgiven in old games, perhaps we need to realize that "good" and "bad" graphics are not as clear-cut as they seem.
Firstly, I want to examine what's been said before. There is the obvious 2D/3D debate. Much has been said on this back during the transitional time when games were moving from mostly sprite to mostly polygon, so there really isn't a lot of new insight to add. The 2D graphics, at the time, were more carefully detailed (as in the case of drawn or painted things, which resembled pictures that gained more and more detail) and the 3D graphics were blocky and unrefined, so that while they seemed more like physical objects, they looked less like objects from the real world. In recent times, the 3D graphics have become far more detailed, yet in some cases (as with backgrounds) the 2D graphics are still considered to yield greater detail and beauty. Verdict: both 2D and 3D graphics have their place.
There is also the great SD/realism debate. Some people prefer the SD (superdeformed) look of older games, believing it to be part of their charm and part of what RPG players are used to. Others prefer the "realistic" taller characters, believing the SD characters to be graphical throwbacks who have huge heads and look like funny little Charlie Brown cartoons. While it is easy to see why some people prefer the realism, there are some obvious problems with that style, too. Firstly, the "realistic" characters are not so lifelike; in fact, the FF8 characters are taller and thinner than real people. Like Barbie, they present physical impossibilities that would create health problems if they actually existed in such proportions. Secondly, very little facial expression is available to these "realistic" characters outside of FMVs; but in FF6 each character possessed quite a few distinct and entertaining facial expressions which helped reveal the story. Realism in games can be a tradeoff for entertainment; if the characters look exactly like people, they lose their unique ability to parody and play amusingly on our vision of life because of their differences from us. One more point in favor of sprites and small, confusing graphics is that RPGs are wonderful at making players use their imaginations. I know exactly what Squall looks like, and you probably have the same mental picture of him as I do; but everyone's interpretation of Cecil is a little bit different. Since he was not rendered in such great detail as technology is now capable of doing, we had to use our imaginations when thinking about what Cecil looks like. It's sometimes refreshing not to have everything spelled out. Verdict: Although realism is good sometimes, and indeed feels like it "belongs" in certain games, it's also nice to have SD people sometimes for humor, imagination and storytelling purposes.
But there is one other issue: should detail sometimes be sacrificed for overall aesthetic appeal?
One of my best friends, who had never touched an RPG in her life before I made her sit down and play FF7, wants to be an animator. She recently criticized the graphics in FF7 for being too blocky and funny-looking, and mentioned that even in the FMV sequences, they were not as well-rendered as they could have been. With all due respect to the fact that FF7 is an older game and that the graphics were awesome for their time, I agreed with her. Compared to scenes in FF9 where individual strands of hair are separately animated, FF7's graphics are certainly old.
A few days later, however, I was watching an old tape which had interviews with the director of FF7. He said that he wanted to be a film director, but thought that it was impossible in Japan and so went into the video game industry. His approach was to zoom the camera around and then freeze it on a frame so that the character could walk around on that plane; and he said that he tried very hard to make smooth transitions between special event graphics and normal play graphics. He was right, too-- now that I think about it, FF7's transitions were very smooth and nice.
FF8 and FF9 did not use the same technique. Consequently, there were very jarring transitions between FMV and play graphics. I remember points at which I sat back and stopped playing to watch the mini-movie stuck in the middle of the game; then after the pretty flashy stuff was done, I picked the controller back up and resumed playing. FF9 had this problem even worse than FF8; the better and more detailed the FMVs got, the less connected to the game they felt.
I'm not saying that beautiful, detailed FMVs are bad. I like to see well-rendered scenes as much as anyone. However, that detail is achieved at the expense of the smooth flow of the game and it disturbs the overall feeling of immersion in the story. The overall aesthetics of the game must be sacrificed in order to have such intricate FMV scenes, and it will remain so until the actual play graphics of the game almost equal the detail of the FMVs. In the meantime, it is a tough choice for developers to make. Personally, I would like to see some more games take the road of FF7 and achieve integration and harmony between scenes even at the cost of some of the detail in the FMVs. After all, we only get to see the flashy scenes for a few seconds; for better overall flow, I would gladly sacrifice some of that barely-glimpsed glory which I hardly had time to examine or notice. After I pointed this out, my animator friend withdrew her complaint; perhaps, she said, the FF7 style had been the right decision.
Personally, I believe that some styles fit some games and other styles fit other games. What worked in one game won't work in another. It depends on the mood, characters, plot and tone of the game. What is the work as a whole trying to achieve, and how does the graphical design play into that "feel"? A game with successful graphics will use the most appropriate style as a support to enhance the overall impression of the game, whatever that style may be.
So next time you feel the urge to criticize some of the poorer graphics in older, technologically outdated games, remember that detail isn't everything. Sometimes, what really matters is how well everything fits together to tell the story.
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