The Art of Time Capsule Visual Design

In the year 1999 Sega released the video game Shenmue on the Sega Dreamcast. At the time the graphics were praised for their attempt at realism and the Dreamcast’s use of photo realistic textures for environments. It was a technical marvel. However, times have changed. The looks of games going for photorealism advanced and advanced. Shenmue no longer looks realistic but rather as a product of its time. This is a fate all games meet eventually.

Things then get complicated however as in the year 2015 Shenmue 3 was announced. Shenmue 3 isn’t a realistic looking game and it very clearly isn’t trying to be. The characters are designed with bright colors and the environments look like they came out of an animated film. The game clearly doesn’t have the visual design that Shenmue 1 and 2 were attempting to have.

But the game still looks like Shenmue. Ryo looks exactly how he used to but slightly prettier, walking around towns gives off the same vibes that the Dreamcast games gave, the game feels like a remaster of a game that was never made. By foregoing the visual style that the original games were going for it gave an experience closer to the originals. A game that looked realistic nowadays would be worlds apart from Shenmue but Shenmue 3’s style almost perfectly replicates the original look by looking “worse” than it should.

This phenomenon has compelled me ever since the release of Shenmue 3 in 2019. In many ways Shenmue 3 has changed my gaming related philosophies but this one has had me pondering for two years. What other games have a similar phenomenon? Games that don’t try to go for the visual aesthetics of modern gaming but like games from years ago only with the advancements of modern gaming to make old aesthetics visually stunning?

Anyone invested in the 2D indie game scene probably has a million different answers. It’s practically the main aesthetic of the scene to emulate the looks of older consoles. However that’s not what I’m looking for, pixel art is an artform entirely in its own right and I can’t boil it all down to emulating an old aesthetic. No, I want my focus to mostly be on 3D games.

It’s important to note that techniques such as cell shading in games like Jet Set Radio and Wind Waker can be more attributed to developers not wanting to pursue realism as it adds to development time and cost when it comes to texturing and 3D modeling. Shenmue was definitely a technical marvel when it was released, but it was also literally the most expensive game that was ever developed at the time Some articles claim production cost 70 million, but there are interviews that mention the production cost was more around 47 million.

The first example that comes to my mind for this kind of visual design is another indie game: a Hat in Time. A Hat in Time is a 3D indie Platformer released a few years ago with collectathon gameplay. It’s a fun game and I definitely recommend it, however it’s not the gameplay I want to talk about but the visuals.

What I’m about to say is not a complaint about the game but rather praise. A Hat in Time looks like it wouldn’t be out of place alongside GameCube titles such as Super Mario Sunshine and Wind Waker aesthetically. Visually however the game looks better than the two of those in several aspects. One of the reasons that can be attributed to this is the game’s shadows and the lighting of models. Early on in development the visuals of the game were inspired by Wind Waker and would have been cel shaded. However after the game was kickstarted the developers instead went a different direction involving hard shadow-casting, gradient shading and outer highlight to create the look the game has now

Through the use of the tools and knowledge of the successes and failures of other, older video games a Hat in Time is not only able to emulate the style of games like Wind Waker but surpass them in ways.

While A Hat in Time emulates the style of Wind Waker without cel shading, Bomb Rush Cyberfunk is an upcoming game that uses cel shading to imitate the style of an old classic. Bomb Rush Cyberfunk is the fourth game to be released by Team Reptile (Known for Lethal League and it’s sequel, Lethal League Blaze). Many of the hallmarks of their games include bold vivid colors, a cyberpunk art style, and a high energy futuristic soundtrack as a cherry on top of their trope milkshake. Their upcoming game is not afraid to flamboyantly parade it’s inspiration like one’s first piece of clothing priced above $150. Bomb Rush Cyberfunk is being celebrated as the spiritual sucessor of the Jet Set Radio franchise, with it’s focus of movement in a city environment, cell shaded art style, and getting the composer for the Jet Set Radio series (and notorious twitter user) Hideki Naganuma involved.

Said inspiration is notable for being one of the first cel-shaded video games released, with its unique art direction that has made the game age like fine wine, it’s not hard to see why the game has developed it’s cult following. Despite being developed around the same time as Shenmue, JSR’s art direction and environmental design contrasts against Shenmue’s more realistic environments and character modeling. Aiming for a cartoonish style, the developers at Smilebit opted to utilize cel-shading in order to complement the more anime characters designs and less detailed textures. While the devs might have opted into cel-shading for a variety of reasons, maybe as a cost-measuring decision or a stylistic one, it was effective in giving the series a unique identity that makes it memorable to this very day.

Now while Jet Set Radio as a franchise might be doomed to never see the light of day again, Team Reptile have stepped in and started working on that Jet Set Radio sequel that many fans thought would never exist. The art direction is almost indistinguishable from JSR, and the 3D artists have put extraordinary work into making sure that their style drills thoughts of JSR into your head. The artistic decisions from the characters Y2K fashion to the familiar use of cel-shading, Bomb Rush Cyberfunk is doing it’s best to preserve the early 2000’s era of games.

One final indie game I would like to talk about in this article is a horror game known as Banned Memories: Yamanashi. The game is heavily inspired by games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil on the PS1. Like most 2D indie games that attempt to imitate the NES, this game would never be able to run its visuals on an actual PS1 but that doesn’t matter, what matters is the feeling it gives off.

PS1 horror games like Silent Hill give off an almost otherworldly feeling nowadays. They had very limited visuals to convey something horrifying and could almost come off as uncanny at times. Banned Memories captures this feeling and atmosphere perfectly, something that is aspiring for an indie game years in the making.

Before closing off I would like to thank my friend Michael. As he is a UI/UX designer and a 3D modeling artist, and I felt his input on this was invaluable to prevent myself from comments in things I don’t understand.

The four games mentioned in this article are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this kind of time capsule visual design. If one were to search around they would be able to find a plethora of games trying to invoke the nostalgia of bygone generations. From games trying to look like specific games to games that just try to emulate the feeling of older generations this kind of visual design is here to stay and I for one love the look of them.

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