Graphics have always been the foundation of gaming. Along with processing power, graphics have restricted and then liberated what developers can achieve in terms of the titles they release. This article explores the evolution of gaming graphics from 2D to 3D.

The role of graphics in gaming

Graphics give a game visual appeal and so much more. If you think about it, the graphics of the games we play are what immerse us in the experience. Nobody wants to see graphics enhanced at the expense of gameplay, but then nobody wants to trade GTA IV for the days of Pong.

The first advancements in gaming graphics meant that developers could release titles that were less blocky and more colorful. Later on, truly 3D games could be created and from there we’ve arrived at huge, realistic open worlds.

As hardware advanced, developers had the capacity to create ever more impressive games with epic graphics. This affected different genres across all platforms, from casino to console, PC to mobile.

Casino games like slots, for example, first appeared online in a very basic form. The symbols span on the reels, but that was about it. Fast forward to now and online slots graphics have greatly improved to allow for animations, elaborate bonus rounds, and 3D slots with various themes.

When it comes to gaming, consoles generally led the way when it came to graphics. The early PCs were seen as work machines and any games were basic. Again, times have changed. Consoles and PCs alike now have games with stunning graphics and even mobile games can reach the levels of previous console generations.

The early days

Let’s face it, although PacMan brought endless joy to a generation, the early versions, such as the one released on the Atari 2600 in the late 1970s, was nothing short of ugly. It was a blocky affair and the color palette was very limited.

The arcade machines of that era did slightly better when it came to the graphics, and so there was a disparity between what you could play at home compared to what was available at the arcades.

As mentioned, the PC did little to close this gap. Most PC games of that time were text-based adventures, simply dungeon scrollers, or games like Arkanoid in which graphics were barely a consideration.

The Spectrum, released in 1982, brought about 8-bit gaming with a maximum resolution of 256 x 192 in 15 colors. Two colors could be used per 8×8 block and each block could have its own colors. This even allowed for shading.

Developers were working with what they had at the time and creating fun games in the process. But it wasn’t until the early Nintendo consoles that graphics took a quantum leap.

Early Nintendo to 3D Graphics

The Nintendo Entertainment System took graphics to the next level. It was still using blocky sprites, 2D bitmaps, but they were skillfully woven together to create more impressive moving parts, such as Super Mario, which was composed of four individual sprites.

Colours were also improving, and continued to do so in the 16-bit era with the advent of the Sega Mega Drive, SNES and Gameboy.

But the real big change to come was the introduction of truly 3D graphics from the early 1990s onward. The N64, released in 1996, was among the first to feature fully 3D graphics rendered using GPU, although games still used sprites that were cleverly manipulated to give a 3D feel.

The console could render 80,000 polygons per second and used a process called z-buffering to ensure smooth gameplay.

The PC, meanwhile, was catching up. Quake 2, which utilized the id Tech 2 engine, brought real time lighting and shadows. It doesn’t sound like much of a jump, but this created a much more immersive feel and was the start of a more realistic kind of environment.

Interestingly, it is the Sega Dreamcast that is attributed as being the console on which the first truly 3D game was realized. This was Sonic Adventure, released in 1999 as part of the console’s launch.

Into the future

Following those early 3D games, Sony released the Playstation series, Microsoft launched Xbox, and PCs have become incredible gaming machines. Cross platform titles like Fortnite, the new series of which has an anime theme, show that the gap between hardware options has closed.

Frame rates are higher than developers could have ever imagined and environments can be rendered for huge 3D open worlds leading to titles like Assassin’s Creed.

Graphics have come a long way since those early days of the Atari and have ushered in a new era of high definition, high spec gaming.