Today, you can argue the case that video game graphics have reached the point of photorealism, and perhaps even pushed beyond it. The digital worlds we can explore and play with are more beautiful and arresting than many aspects of our physical reality.
Of course, this was not always the case, and it has been a long, hard road to get to the levels of fidelity we can experience today, so here is a look at the main points at which leaps in graphical believability were made.
Image Source: Pixabay
Black & white beginnings
The first commercially available home video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey, may have been forgotten by all but the most die-hard gamers, but we owe it a debt for helping to found what has now become a multibillion-dollar industry.
When hooked up to a traditional CRT television, the Odyssey could only output a trio of square shapes and a single line, with a black and white picture meaning that most of the work was done by the players’ imaginations.
Even so, the developers were able to create 28 different games for the system over the course of its three-year lifespan in the early 1970s, and this is a testament to the fact that even the simplest graphics were evocative and engaging.
Color & complexity
With the arrival of the second generation of video games consoles in the late 1970s, not only were machines like the Atari 2600 and Intellivision built to display more complex shapes but also to do this in full color.
Of course with some offering just 8 colors and even the market-leading Atari machine pumping out a maximum of 128 hues at any one time, the range and dynamism were laughably limited by modern standards.
Even so, it was enough to portray more complex games, from arcade hits like Pac-Man to casino games like poker, roulette, and slots. Indeed there are lots of fun facts about slot machine icons, and the rise of sprite-based graphics at this point enabled new generations to experience all sorts of titles adapted from real-world equivalents, as well as entirely new concepts dreamt up by pioneering developers.
8-bit ambitions & beyond
As the 1980s got underway, the third generation of games consoles and the associated graphical leap continued to build upon what had come before. Sega’s Master System and Nintendo’s Famicom, released as the NES in North America, not only upped the scope of the color palettes available to developers but also introduced smooth, hardware-accelerated scrolling so that rather than static screens with moving sprites, backgrounds could shift on the fly, ushering in an era in which 2D platformers dominated.
Even with the 16-bit consoles coming in to replace their 8-bit predecessors, and with some clever techniques used to give the impression of primitive three-dimensional graphics, this was still very much a time dominated by 2D titles. But that would all change in the mid-1990s.
A new challenger emerges
While Sega and Nintendo were seen as the console kings up until this point, Sony stepped onto the scene with the PlayStation and changed everything.
Sure, the first-gen Sony machine could do 2D graphics and do them well, but 3D was really at the core of the system’s feature set, and titles like Ridge Racer proved that not only could home consoles process colorful polygonal graphics, but also do so very quickly indeed.
Nintendo attempted to outdo Sony with the N64, which was definitely more powerful than the PlayStation but was hampered by its reliance on low capacity, high price cartridges rather than the optical discs that Sony had embraced.
HD has its day
From the mid-90s to the early 2000s, successive console generations were capable of pumping out more triangles and effects to wow audiences worldwide, but because players were still using ageing CRT television technology, there was a limit to what could be achieved in terms of visual clarity.
High definition panels hit the mainstream in the mid-2000s, and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 brought true HD support to the masses at the same point in time.
This was arguably the last major leap in terms of video game graphics. At the moment the song and dance surrounding ray tracing is ongoing, but the detectable difference in fidelity between non-RT and RT games is minimal compared with the move to HD.
Now the main battleground for video game progression is storage; the superfast access capabilities of both the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are making for more interesting experiences than those made possible by their sheer graphical horsepower.
It will be interesting to see where graphics go next, but for now, it does seem like something of a plateau has been reached/.