Last Updated on November 18, 2023
In a recent back and forth with Gaming Retro King, King Christian, we settled upon a disappointment towards what passes for art direction these days. Spider-man 2 was the title under fire; a drab technical showcase of a city with character models that you could only describe as what…?
Where was a sense of style? What use is ray tracing if it is just reflecting colour schemes with less allure than a midlands factory?
It’s not all like that of course. I recently mentioned CyberPunk 2077 in good terms and it certainly has its art direction at the top of that sentiment. So much so, that watching it feels as legit as playing. And having played Bioshock Infinite not many days ago, a game with supreme aesthetics, its overly chunky gameplay left me thinking that if I had just watched a play-through, I could have concentrated on that aesthetic more, like I did with The Order 1886, and which was most gratifying to my peepers.
Not that we could do this back in the day. Or could we? The shotgun gaming approach of passing a controller back and forth on a single-player game like Tomb Raider offered frequent opportunities for just looking at the space which had been laid before you, having previously misdirected Lara to another demise and handed the controller over. Tomb Raider was great art direction as well. Not just the texturing, but the sense of visual direction, of showing without telling. A clever game, but not the reason we are here. Its retro art direction might be good, but it is not that good. Not against the sort of competition that was around. Competition like this personal top five list of games most alluring to my eyes.
We’ll start down the arcade with Number 5.
5. Sega Rally Championship
Nothing did things like Sega’s Model 2 board did things. Bright textures ladled on top of a sophisticated, chunky base and all moving at a super smooth 60fps. That was the Model 2 promise, but Sega Rally put it all through a Euro-cool, Martini-sharp filter of art direction that oozed with only Sega sophistication. The livery of the cabinet looked like Big Track for big boys, and those colours on the screen; highly contrasting landscapes and roadways, but all rendered in warm colours. It wasn’t looking to show off, but it really couldn’t help it.
And then there were the cars. We all remember them. That Toyota Celica, the cream of 90s sports cool, and the Lancia Delta. The fact is that any Lancia is cool but the Delta, with its naturally boxy design, was just the coolest thing that the Model 2 ever rendered. Utter sympathy between the two and singularly symbolic of the game itself. Realistic to a point that was useful and then supremely artistic on top; the wide arcing desert stage, the tight inter-village section of the mountains, or those nightmare green banks all around the lakeside, everything had its place, and with much less of the visual excess which dominated other arcade racers.
Utterly timeless. Like the entirety of my Number 4.
4. Super Mario World
Clockwork. This game’s entire approach to everything fits it all together like the finest of bespoke wrist furniture. Including the aesthetic. Minimal, but with every piece having good reason to be there.
Let’s move on. Start a fight.
3. King of Fighters ‘98
SNK and art direction is almost a double-negative. Of course SNK and art direction. This entire list could be made up of their entries; Garou: Mark of the Wolves, Metal Slug, Samurai Spirits. Where do we begin, let alone end?
As you can see, I have been reasonable and gone for peak King of Fighters. The 1998 model. A patchwork of perfect pixels, fore and background, with character animation top to tail in fine detail. This is highly tailored 2-D, and to be clear SNK had the style down pat with their initial King of Fighters ‘94 iteration, so feel free to quibble amongst yourselves over which yearly game you preferred to look at. I go with ‘98, because to my mind that was the one in which it all came together. Capcom had already won the technical war against SNK with their CPS-III board, but then squandered that power on the sort of character designs which made it into Street Fighter III. By comparison, each of the cross-stitch style characters SNK added only gave each game more art style, and more ambient backgrounds of fine pastoral details for them to fight in.
It is only not at number one because the next two are true aliens.
2. NiGHTS Into Dreams
It was 1996, the table was being set and by the summer a feast of gaming across all platforms was laid out, the like of which I am certain we have not seen since. The foundations of what would become gaming were all present here for the first time. The Nintendo 64 and Mario 64 had just changed everything and was available on import, Quake was doing the same for the PC and online brigade, and you could buy that PAL. Virtua Fighter 3 arrived and utterly defined modern fidelity down the arcades and Sony just kept dropping populist bombs all over everything.
But best of all were the lucid dreamscapes of Sonic Team’s NiGHTS going off over on the Sega Saturn. Now, I consider this to be, by some measure of distance, the greatest game that I have ever played. A synaesthesia quite unlike anything since. And the aesthetic of this game is as apparent as any aspect of its fullness. High-end with the tech it ran on and somehow simultaneously unbounded in imagination and specific design, each world of gameplay a twisting testament of setting and tone. Cohesive and yet unrestrained.
The Saturn appears to gain more romance with each passing year, but absolutely nothing delved so romantically into the dreams of the machine than this game. A total winner, but in this list, first loser. It’s even second place in the romance stakes, by the power of VIII.
1. Final Fantasy VIII
Classical Euro-futurism with a cosplay, catwalk attitude. Forget the story and take it for what it is; the best location fashion shoot that never made it into an issue of Vogue. Flick through the pre-rendered screens like hi-gloss pages and take it in; detailed locales with clothes horse characters. The cyber slum vibes of Final Fantasy VII were well off the table for this shoot. High couture townships of, presumably local off-white stone, seamlessly integrated with antiquitech industrial ambitions; a feast of design unencumbered by any sense of modernism, post or otherwise. Iconic on its own terms with landscapes and fine with the finer details of characters; Squall, the be-feathered femme leather biker or Rinoa, perhaps the best outfitted-girl in all of gaming.
Now, like all photo shoots, you don’t want to actually hear your clotheshorses speak, and Final Fantasy VIII being an RPG, there is a lot of that. At least as text there is, which probably doesn’t help matters. Not the best dialogue, but it just enhances the view. A loftiness not to be confused with aloof and as beguilingly mysterious as the curvaceous winds of the Mistral.
Timeless at both ends. Bravo.
John is a writer and gardener. He comes with various 90’s Sega attachments and is the author of The Meifod Claw and other works. His favorite tree is a copper beech and he would like his coffee black without sugar, thank you.