Videogames, politics, science, all the important things in life.

Graphics vs Gameplay

Posted by nfinit on February 12, 2007

(Originally submitted to The Platformers)

There are a great many acts of mental deception console fanboys subject themselves to, and few fascinate me more than that of “graphics vs gameplay.”

Simply put, proponents believe superior graphics inhibit gameplay; that through some arcane process developers without access to transparency filters or Mode Seven or 1080p resolution add Extra Gameplay Magic, making their games superior to games appearing on the most powerful system. They deride graphics as nothing more than “eye candy”. You’d almost wonder why these people don’t toss out their current hardware and live a life of perfect zen gameplay mastery with a Vectrix. Of course, spending much of my gaming life as a Sega fanboy, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit to using the argument myself, Blast Processing be damned. And of course, there is a bit of merit to these concerns, what with Castlevania’s dalliances in the 3d realm being forgotten, and poor Sonic’s not been the same since he moved to the Dreamcast.

But there is no need for graphics to get in the way of good gameplay. Indeed I think it can be shown that advancements in technology only serve to enhance gameplay and open up new gameplay genres. A walk through the past 25 years of graphical progress between hardware cycles illustrates this.

Consider the move from the 2600 to the NES- before, the most complex platformer was Pitfall, we had not seen scrolling platform games anywhere near as complex as Mario. These games were confined to a handful of sprites on screen, making shooters such as R-Type impossible. The most compelling story the 2600 ever told was that of a humble dot endlessly pursued by a vicious, key-hating duck. We’d have to wait on new hardware before we would see stories on the level of Dragon Warrior and Phantasy Star.

The move to 16-bit hardware presented a refinement of existing genres, but new gameplay avenues were still opened. Games like Pilotwings would have been impossible without the smooth scaling at the SNES’s disposal. Eight-bit systems gave us compelling RPGs, but one can hardly argue Final Fantasy 6 would have been the same without the SNES color pallet. Similarly, Lunar: Silver Star Story would not have been the same without full-motion video. And while the NES could approximate Street Fighter II, it’s hard to imagine that anyone not heavy into psychotropic drugs would prefer it over the SNES version.

The PS1 era marked the latest great graphical leap between hardware generations, and gameplay took a leap as well. Finally we could see truly cinematic experiences on consoles, expressed in Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil. Indeed, the entire Survival Horror genre relies on atmosphere that would have been impossible on previous hardware. The racing genre, long confined to crude 2D sprites, finally flourished. After years of playing second fiddle to the arcade, consoles saw arcade ports that looked and played better at home, contributing to the marginalization of the arcade industry. True 3D FPS games on the consoles became possible, and we even saw first-glass FPG games appearing exclusively on consoles.

The following cycle gave us no revolutionary leap in the way graphics were presented, but the new hardware still allowed for larger worlds, giving rise to the sandbox genre made popular by GTA3. For the first time devs had the ability to do some truly remarkable work in terms of the scale in which worlds were presented, best seen in Shadow of the Colossus. Dynamic lighting not only made games look better, but it made stealth games such as Splinter Cell possible. Existing genres could be presented as a more compelling gaming experience. Sure, it may have been feasible to play God of War on the N64, but would you have really wanted to?

It could be argued that the current console generation exhibits only another cursory polish, but I don’t think that’s fair. We haven’t seen what the PS3 is capable of, and already the 360 boasts Dead Rising, a game that could at best be approximated on the Xbox 1. Meanwhile, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved would not be the same without its riot of particle effects and screen-warping explosions.

The false dichotomy of graphics over gameplay isn’t just a flawed argument, it is indeed a total and complete falsehood, if anything, the direct opposite is true. Every new advancement in graphics have opened up more freedom of design, more possibilities, even more size in each subsequent generation of games. There will always be disappointing games, even games with multi million dollar CGI budgets, but their being bad games is not the fault of the system they’re presented on. Graphics are more than eye candy. The progression in graphics have pushed gameplay farther than new controllers and online multiplayer gaming could ever hope.

Sadly, just as crappy games will never go away, neither will Graphics vs Gameplay. But hey, if anyone wants, I’m willing to trade my Genesis for your Wii.


2 Responses to “Graphics vs Gameplay”

  1. Anonymous said

    It should be noted that this dichotomy in the form it is described is more often presented by people less capable of arguing effectively. The argument that is meant to be presented (and admittedly isn’t sometimes) is that graphical capabilities are not a good indicator of a console’s potential success. I’m sure you’re aware of that, but I figured putting it out there would be a good idea anyway. Aside from that, there is only one small bit that I would like to take to task:”The progression in graphics have pushed gameplay farther than new controllers and online multiplayer gaming could ever hope.” It’s clear what you are implying, and that is a very bold assertion.

  2. Anonymous said

    It seems like you are describing the overall improvement in hardware solely as “graphics”. The progression in graphics traditionally came with progression in CPU and RAM.The jump from the 16 bit era to the N64/PS1 era was not a purely a graphical leap to 3D. The entire gameplay shifts once you are moving in a 3D space. For some reason developers decided there was a fuckton of stuff to collect in the 3D world that we had never noticed in over a decade of modern 2D gaming, but that’s another issue altogether.Look at the change from SMB to SMB3. The graphics improved but the quality of gameplay improved more significantly. No hardware upgrade took place.And controllers have done just as much for gameplay as improved hardware.Double d-pads like the Virtual Boy were not acceptable controls for 3D games. The analog stick controller was necessary for the improvement of 3D gameplay. I think the PSP shows that the second analog stick is much more important than most of us thought.The problem with the improved hardware is that many believe it is only used to improve the graphics.Sony and Microsoft’s marketing is partially to blame for this belief. Rather than saying “you cannot get 100 zombies running independently on a last gen console,” they talk about the HD Era and Sony talks about TrueHD. It is admittedly much easier to talk about how there are 3x as many pixels than to explain the nuances of games that could not have been done on older hardware.

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