Console generations in relation to Art styles

I noticed whilst reading over some of my previous posts that I had made a lot of references to console generations to help set timelines with the points I was analysing. I would like to look at all of the console generations up to the modern games industry and what kind of art styles they used the most as well as what was most iconic about them (At least from a personal point of view)

  • 1st generation (1972 – 1977)

    Notable consoles: Magnavox odyssey, Pong machines/chips

    At its earliest point, gaming was little more than a few moving pixels on a screen at any given time. Often times to help add a visual element to the experience, devices would come with “Visual overlays” that were screen sized translucent plastic that would replicate something context sensitive to the game (Football stadium, Space ECT)

  • 2nd generation (1977-1983)

    Notable consoles: Atari 2600, Intellivision, Atari 5200

    A huge leap in technology comparative to the previous generation, games of the Second generation were able to utilize colour and sprites of a basic complexity (To the point at least half of the assets are identifiable as the objects they are attempting to portray). Animations were basic if even present and usually only really worked if abstracted significantly. Music was incredibility simplistic, with low quality bit tunes consisting of a few notes at a time with sound effects often consisting of various pitched beeps.

    Despite its simplistic graphics capability, some games were able to use colour and basic form to their advantage and create visually memorable games such as “Pitfall” and “Centipede”.

  • 3rd generation (1983 – 1987)

    Notable consoles: Nintendo entertainment system (NES), SEGA master system

    The 3rd generation is when graphics in video gaming reached a point that each game could theoretically have a completely distinct visual style that would be immediately identifiable. With 48 colours and 6 greys, The NES and comparable systems could output a variety of shades for each colour which would allow for shading 2D assets. With increased storage and Ram, the systems could also hold a far higher amount of sprites both on screen and in the wings before loading. This allows for more advance animations that better represent their intended events.

    With these advanced graphical options, games were in a far better position to create unique art styles that better suited their games. A wider colour pallet also improved game design ,with visuals being far better at guiding and advising the player. This generation saw a wide variety of art styles; Some with more simplistic assets such as “Legend of Zelda” and “Super Mario Bros”, and more complex art styles that use shading and depth such as “Contra” and “Ducktails”. This wide variety of art styles made the games library’s far more appealing to a wider audience and ensured their mainstream success (Despite gamings more niche appeal at the time)

  • 4th generation (1987 – 1994)

    Notable consoles: Nintendo Super nintendo entertainment system (SNES), Sega Megadrive/Genisis, SEGA CD

    The 4th generation was another large leap forward, not in terms of methods necessarily but instead in processing power and memory capacity’s. This allowed for far deeper colour pallets, More detailed sprites and larger spritesheets. This in turn allowed for far more complex animations and when combined with the other aspects of the consoles like Parallax scrolling allowed for far improved visuals and a wider variety of art styles.

  • 5th generation (1993 – 1997)

    Notable consoles: Sony Playstation, Nintendo 64

    With this generation saw the debut of full 3D on the home console. Using basic polygons and textures opened up a whole new style of graphics for developers to use in developing games, both mechanically and visually. The addition of a third dimension allowed for some new and interesting developments with pre-exsisting art styles. An example of this would be the “Mario” series. Previously created with highly stylised 2D assets and environments, the series made the jump to 3D successfully with its bright vibrant colours and simplistic assets fitting the low poly limits of the time.

    Art style focuses for the consoles of this generation depended mainly on which console they were based on. The Nintendo 64 had a bias for more colourful and animated games whereas the PlayStation had more of focus on more realistic looking games in some respects (With games using Pre baked backgrounds for a more realistic look). These focuses do not cover even 40% of the games on the consoles but instead are merely an observed trend of some of their more popular games.

    Despite the eve of 3D, 2D art styles still had a place on these consoles and the processing power increase allowed for far better quality sprites and assets as well as basically unlimited sprite sheet size, allowing for far more complex animations.

  • 6th generation (1997 – 2005)

    Notable consoles: Sony Playstation 2, Nintendo Gamecube, SEGA dreamcast, Microsoft Xbox

    The 6th generation did not introduce much new as far as graphical techniques are concerned but instead was a huge upgrade in terms of graphical quality. 3D models could now accurately represent items without having to abstract them overmuch. Texture quality also increase, which allowed for art styles attempting to represent reality to become fore more prevalent. With this generation, there were still 2D games being created, but they were far in the minority when compared to 3D games.

    As with the previous generation, Nintendo’s console had a high number of vibrant, upbeat games with a strong focus on characters. The others had quite an even spread with a higher number of mature rated games which focused more of a mature art style look (With many of the elements attempting to look somewhat realistic).

  • 7th generation (2005 – 2012)

    Notable consoles: Microsoft Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, Sony Playstation 3

    With the 7th generation, consoles once again saw a huge increase in quality. With highly detailed models and textures, more realistic styles were more achievable than ever before. The power to create realistic graphics, coupled with a serious movement in the industry for mature, serious games (As games were attempting to become more accepted in the mainstream and be taken seriously as an artistic medium) had a negative effect of creating a huge influx of games attempting realistic art styles. Whilst this would not usually be a problem, games with Vibrant and highly animated art styles saw a significant decrease for years. Games took on a more grey and brown focused colour pallet which whilst appealing at the time, often caused art styles to become easily forgettable.

    Towards the end of the generation, more vibrant art styles began to enter the mainstream more and more, though at a slow rate. This is a trend that has continued to this day which is bring the diveristy of art styles back up to its 5th and 6th generation high.

  • 8th generation (2012- Present)

    Notable consoles: Sony Playstation 4, Nintendo WiiU, Microsoft Xbox One

    The current generation has seen a relatively tame step up in quality (Although its processing power increased greatly, allowing for higher frame rates). However, the trend of more vibrant games entering the mainstream has continued and now, thanks to indie development initiatives on both Sony and Microsoft’s parts, more and more games that have distinct art styles are being put on platforms. There is still a high number of realistic art styles in the industry, however many of them have realised the benefit of using bright colour and the Brown/grey focus of the previous generation has all but ended.

Over the course of the games industry, art styles have always had trends and technology to work alongside. Despite this, some of gamings most iconic art styles could have been created in any generation due to strength of their styles not being due to graphical quality but aesthetic choices.



Outcomes – Series analysis/Final essay

For my final outcomes for this project, I have wanted to pinpoint exactly what constitutes an art style and how it affects the rest of the game (Design, sound and narrative). One idea I have had to do this throughout the project would be to compare a few different, long running series and examine how their art styles have changed and what common elements have kept them identifiable as the series they belong to. By examining how different series manage to stay distinct despite decisively differing art styles, I should be able to hone in on exactly what constitutes an art style and how they are designed to fit certain themes/genres.

One I have examined a few different examples and have a good amount of knowledge on the subject, I will write an essay revolving around what I have learned about art styles as a whole and where they fit in terms of games development. Also examining the best ways art styles and visuals can be used as design aspects will hopefully better showcase my understanding. Hopefully, with the project completed, I’ll have advanced my understanding of visual design significantly. Over the upcoming semester, ill be examining various art styles and how they effect the games they have been designed for. Ill also examine the various elements that make up a games art direction (Which I will collate in my final essay) and development of game visuals over the course of the game industry’s history.

I am looking forward to reading more into these matters and learning more about how visuals have functioned previously and hopefully getting a good idea of how they will develop in the future.

3D Art styles

Continuing where I left off from earlier, I will now attempt to analyse what some of 3D’s strengths are in the games industry, both in the past and modern use.

3D art styles initially started with low poly models on pc and later on some of the earlier consoles (PS1, N64, Atari Jaguar, Dreamcast ECT). In its earlier days, the technology was not at a point where models had enough detail to create a strong sense of immersion so a focus on creating a distinct style was still paramount. This is not to say games in 3D’s earlier days did not attempt more realistic art styles, but they also often exaggerated certain elements to make up for the lack of detail in certain areas. In the earlier days, their were also techniques to make the rendering process easier whilst still presenting the illusion of a fully 3D environment that involved 3D characters and objects but pre-rendered “Flat” Backgrounds. An example of this would be “Final fantasy 7” which often had complex background environments that only had certain aspects rendered in real-time. This had the added benefit of allowing for far greater detail in the environments without a performance hit.

Earlier 3D had a distinct look that attempted to create the necessary complexity in models whilst using as a few polygons as possible. This style also required the textures to be created In a way that suggested as much detail possible with lower resolutions. This “Low Poly” look has since seen a small resurgence in independent art assets, indie projects and occasionally larger budget game (Gone home, Superhot). Thanks to more advanced technology, the texture elements can be far higher resolution as well as post processing but the assets themselves are purposefully created to evoke that low resolution look that was popularised by early 3D.

As the generations moved on, graphical quality increased, allowing for far greater quality in models, textures and post-processing effects/Rendering techniques. With the inclusion of bump maping, complex lighting and techniques to reduce quality of faraway/Unseen objects, 3D graphics have been constantly improving and becoming more realistic as the industry has progressed. This can allow for a far wider diversity in art styles but also creates an issue where generic art styles become more easily acceptable. Around the Seventh generation of consoles, many games attempted to use the new high levels of processing power to create games that attempted to mimic reality as closely as possible. Whilst this had appeal initially, it saw a sharp decrease in games with memorable and unique art styles. Colorful games and games that used more “Stylistic” art direction were few and far between when compared to the previous generations and whilst this is still the case in todays industry, we are seeing a resurgence with games such as “Yooka-laylee” and “Splatoon” are good examples as well as more mature examples such as “No man’s sky”, “Dishonoured 2” and “Project Setsuna”.

Graphics will always be improving, regardless of art style trends. In the past art styles for video games have been created due in part to limitations of the medium (As many artistic works often are). With technology now allowing for incredibly high definition models and rendering techniques, creating games that emulate reality is more possible now than ever before. Despite this, more and more games are attempting to create unique and appealing visual styles will set them apart from others, and this is heartening to see.

Additional note :

I have also been thinking about Isometric perspectives in relation to art styles and realised that isometric is a perspective tool that suits both 3D and 2D and often uses both to great effect. Initially I was going to write a pose about 2.5D or hybrid art styles in relation to this, but I realised that both of these posts cover it well enough.


2D Art styles

As part of trying to pinpoint what exactly an art style is, I think it would be best if I tried to properly define what the two main styles of visuals used in gaming are; 2D and 3D. Whilst what they are is immediately obvious, it would still be best if I quickly covered what each entails and some of the variations and best uses they have in the modern industry.

2D art styles were initially the only real option due to hardware limitations (Some earlier machines had the ability to display basic vectors but these were not truly widespread until around the fifth generation of consoles). However, as technology advanced, 3D became an option and 2D moved more into a choice rather than a restriction.

2D art styles work well for allowing hand drawn/designed assets to be used as close to their concept iteration as possible. This can work well for more visually expressive games with complex animations. Generally, 2D art styles are chosen because they fit the game genre or design. An example of this would be the fighting game or platforming genres. These genres are typically restricted to 2D movement and interaction and as such work well with 2D graphical assets that do not have to deal with depth or be rendered in a way that the camera angle is unknown. (NOTE – Both of these genres can also work well with 3D art styles as well)

As I stated in a previous entry, Pixels are also a staple of 2D art styles. When used appropriately, they can be incredibly appealing and they have fantastic range (Although most Art styles can be adapted to fit any theme if properly adjusted).

Many games mechanically chose 2D due to genre and fitting mechanics, but still use 3D art styles (Mighty number 9, TRINE ECT). Likewise some game that involve 3D movement and mechanics use 2D Art styles (South park : Stick of truth, Paper Mario).

Broad overview of Art style history and Vision statement

In my previous Post, I realised that I had been referring to Pixels throughout gaming’s history with a focus on them as a rendering method rather then their artistic merits. I think a good way of moving forward at this point would be to briefly cover as many widely used Art styles in the games industry as possible for future reference. I will also briefly talk about my decided vision statement that I will be basing my future research around.

A brief list of popular art styles in the games industry:

  • Pixels

  • Hand Drawn (VECTOR OR PIXELS)


  • 3D (Realistic)


As I type these out, I have noticed something that I will need to consider carefully as I progress. In a similar fashion to how Game genres function, these categories are insufficient, broad stroking boxes that do not adequately describe what they are attempting to categorize. This is more an error on my part than the industries necessarily. Attempting to classify art styles is not an easy task considering its visual nature (Though not impossible, it seems harder to do in 1-3 words as genre classifications oft are). A good way of attempting to work my way through this line of thought would be to pick a wide variety of games and attempt to sort them via art style. I will make a note to pursue this more at a later date.

Having considered where my research has gone thus far, I have come up with a vision statement that I want to direct my research towards exploring. Simply put, my vision statement is as follows:

Art styles shape and are shaped by every element of the game

I have been wondering what constitutes an art style and what elements define it. I have stated before that I believe, whilst not as important to interpretation as gameplay, a game’s art style gives a game its identity to its players. I would like to explore what contributes to a games overall art stylings such as art direction (In both asset creation and rendering methods), Sound design and gameplay/narrative elements.

From here on out, I will be attempting to either support or rework my claim with my research. I hope to learn more about art direction in video games and how I can use this in my future works.


When I was younger, I only really played video games on my Stepdads PC. I have fond memories of playing thief and monkey island whenever I could a quick session. When I had to move, I was given a NES with around 30 or so games which I enjoyed greatly and played for many years. This lead into a SNES, SEGA Mega drive and eventually into a PS1 and N64. And despite the games industry moving on from pixels into Polygons, I have always had a strong fondness and nostalgia for them.

Initially, Pixels were used a necessity due to technology still being in its earlier days. Some of the earliest home consoles used few colours and low complexity graphics. As the technology developed further, systems were able to display more colours and hold greater file sizes, so the complexity increased. With increased file sizes came high numbers of sprites per character, allowing for smoother and more complex animations.

Technology eventually advanced to polygons and moved on to 3D spaces, but despite this there has always been a place for games using pixels. A good example of this would be the “Castlevania” series. When the PlayStation One first released, there was a large influx of games using polygons to better take advantage of the benefits the console offered. However, there were other series that kept with their Pixel roots and used the increased processing and memory power to make the most out of the system. Castlevania uses complex, high quality sprites with fantastic animations and even elements of 3D mixed into the game (Such as save rooms and certain magic effects). The series attempted to release 3D iterations on the N64 with mixed results (My experience at the time was good but playing it as an adult it seems very poorly designed and no where near as good as others in the series). With the move to PS2, the series attempted again to move into the 3D space with both a traditional styled Castlevania and a fighting game, both rather poorly received. Meanwhile, the series continued on the GBA with great success thank mostly to its traditional design that pleases fans of the series. However, from a personal opinion (And one mirrored by its fans), the pixel art style suits its best with clear Gothic influences and an almost hand drawn look about the assets. The series continued on the DS (A system that can handle 3D to some degree) with its pixel art style and was met with great success.

Despite greatly advanced technology, Pixels still have a strong part of the modern games industry. With games such as “Shovel knight”, “Undertale”, “Broforce” and more, Pixels as an artistic device are still strong in the games industry and look to be that way for the foreseeable future.


After giving Journey a decent amount of play time over the last couple of days, I can safely say it is one of the most beautiful art styles I have seen in gaming and a shining example of what games in the Art game genre can achieve.

The game uses colour not only as an aesthetically pleasing element, but also as a method of effecting player mood and behaviour (Alongside music cues). When the player is wandering from area to area, the colour pallet is often bright and vibrant with warm oranges and deep reds. When the game needs to take on a more lonely or negative mood, the game darkens the whole colour pallet and use cooler colours. Simply taking a screenshot of the game at most times produces something beautiful and clearly shows a focus on the visual style of the game.

Deep, rich reds and oranges show that using a focus color can still produce fantastic depth

The art does not just look good either. The art style is also a vital part of the games design toolkit. Due to not using UI, the game has to be very intelligent with its use of player direction. The player is often out in the open with few landmarks to lead the player in a set direction. Despite this, thanks to a signature landmark (The mountain in the distance) that leads the player in the right direction and good camera movement that zooms the player out a large distance whenever the game calls for it. Through the use of lighting, the player is often subtly drawn to important areas or pointed in the right direction to look for the answer. This method can range from something as subtle as more light making its way through some ruins than in other areas to obvious cues such as bright light beams illuminating areas of a cave.

Each environment in the game uses a unique focus colour that helps distinguish what would usual be a number of plains with occasional ruins scattered around to many unique and separate environments. From rich red plains to Icy blue cliffs and Teal caves, the environment design carried the game in so many ways (And considering the gameplay lacking overmuch beyond light platforming, this was important). Usually, gameplay of this nature would get old rather quickly were it not for the stunning art direction, entertaining platforming abilities (Sand surfing and flying) and length of the game (3-4 hours, although I took slightly longer due to taking a few notes). The game perfectly filled the time it requested and will stay in my memory far stronger and longer than games of far greater length and complexity.

Dark areas use lighting as an effective player guidance device

Both through the use of gameplay manipulation and art direction, the player is always going in the right direction and feeling the appropriate way when required to fully capture any given moment. The art direction of this game is fantastic and easily an example for others to strive for.